Misdemeanors & Felonies Explained
A misdemeanor is a less serious crime than a felony. Felonies are the most serious crimes you can commit and have long jail or prison sentences, fines, or permanent loss of freedoms. Misdemeanors usually involve jail time, smaller fines, and temporary punishments. For example, you can be slightly over the limit during a DUI stop and get a misdemeanor, but if you have had many DUIs before or caused an accident resulting in a serious injury, you could be charged with a felony.
Types or Categories of Crimes in Washington State
Washington State separates crimes into several different categories, depending on the seriousness of the charge. The major categories are: civil infractions; misdemeanors; and felonies. Each one of those categories contains its own breakdown of different severity levels.
The major categories are almost always determined by the maximum amount of jail time that is possible. It's important to know how the court system treats a particular case in order to understand the differences. As a general rule, however, when trying to figure out what the difference is between a misdemeanor and a felony, you can look to the maximum potential jail time for the crime for the answer.
What's An Infraction?
In general, infractions are the least serious type of charge, and are not technically treated as “crimes”. An infraction is the violation of a rule, ordinance, or a law: think speeding, littering, or using your cell phone while driving. Importantly, in Washington State, there is no jail time associated with an infraction, and while it may show up on your driving record, it will not count as a criminal conviction for things like most job or housing applications. Typically, payment of a fine will be the only punishment, and most insurance agencies will raise your monthly premium as a result of that infraction being found committed.
Generally, a police officer will see someone doing something wrong, write a ticket and hand it to the person. The person then has to pay a fine. Infractions usually involve little to no time in court, and if a person hires an attorney to represent them on the infraction, Washington Law allows the lawyer to attend those hearings on the person’s behalf without the person having to personally appear for court themselves. However, infractions can turn into a more serious crime if left unaddressed or unpaid.
Washington law distinguishes between two kinds of driving infractions: moving, and non-moving. Generally, the question is whether the infraction has to do with whether the infraction concerns the operation of the car – speeding, running a red light, etc. – or whether it has to do with the equipment on the car itself – expired vehicle tabs, broken tail light, etc. Most insurance companies will increase premiums for a moving violation, but importantly, not for a non-moving violation. The law typically provides for an increasing range of fines and potential penalties for the different classes within the infraction category.
What's a Misdemeanor?
Misdemeanors are more serious than infractions. Under Washington Law, a misdemeanor is a criminal offense that carries a potential jail term of less than one year. That category is further broken down into simple misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors.
- Simple Misdemeanors – up to 90 days in jail, and/or a fine of up to $1,000;
- Gross Misdemeanors – up to 364 days in jail, and/or a $5,000 fine.
Any jail sentence imposed on a misdemeanor will usually be served in a local city or county jail, as opposed to having the defendant sent to a state prison. Prosecutors generally have a great degree of flexibility in deciding what crimes to charge, how to punish them, and what kinds of plea bargains to negotiate.
What's a Felony?
A felony is the most serious type of crime. Washington State generally defines a felony as any crime for which a person could serve 12 months or more in custody. The class of felonies is either defined explicitly for a given offense or implicitly, based on how long a person could serve in prison if convicted. In Washington State, felonies carry either a Class A, B, or C designation, based on their maximum possible punishments:
- Class A felony – Life in prison, and/or a $50,000 fine;
- Class B felony – Up to ten years in prison, and/or a $20,000 fine;
- Class C felony – Up to five years in prison, and/or a $10,000 fine.
Felonies are usually crimes that are viewed severely by society and include crimes such as murder, rape, burglary, or DUI with a serious accident resulting in injury. However, felonies can also be punished in a range of ways so that the punishment matches the severity of the crime.
Felony Sentencing Guidelines in Washington State
Washington uses a standard range system for felony sentencing. Felony offenses are divided into 16 seriousness levels ranging from low (Level I) to high (Level XVI). Then, a defendant’s criminal history is scored, assigning points for different criminal convictions from their past. Generally, a person receives one point for each prior felony. However, a prior felony conviction can count for two or even three points oftentimes, and other times even a misdemeanor conviction can count as a point as well. Note that certain provisions in the law allow a conviction to no longer be counted on a person's score if enough time has passed and other conditions are met.
An offender’s score will result in a range from 0 to 9+. Washington law provides a grid: one axis includes the offender score from 0 to 9+, and the other axis accounts for the seriousness level of the offense, from Level I to Level XVI. The result from the grid gives us the standard range sentence for a given offense committed by a given offender.
Washington law does occasionally allow judges to depart from that standard range sentence if exceptional circumstances apply. Additionally, sentencing alternatives can provide extra treatment-based options for some offenders in lieu of extra prison time. Finally, Washington Law does provide a three-strikes law: on a third serious felony offense, as defined by law, the sentencing range no longer applies and the only sentence imposed is life in prison.