What is the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony?

The majority of traffic tickets are issued for violations which are categorized as “infractions.” These include tickets for mechanical violations and most non-dangerous or reckless moving violations. Infractions are not serious criminal offenses and do not usually carry the same penalties. But specific traffic-related offenses are designated as either “misdemeanors” or “felonies” and can lead to substantial consequences.

In most states, a traffic violation becomes a misdemeanor or felony if it:

  • Creates harm to a person or damage of property
  • Produces a genuine threat of injury to a person or destruction of property

An Overview of Traffic Felonies and Misdemeanors

Going through a stop sign may be considered a misdemeanor violation in one state, for instance, but it becomes a felony violation if the driver runs a stop sign and maliciously hits another motor vehicle or pedestrian in the intersection and someone in the other car or a pedestrian is killed. Additionally, some traffic violations are categorized as misdemeanors or felonies from the start.

More About Traffic Misdemeanors

The criminal justice system would undoubtedly be overwhelmed if every offense required a full criminal trial. Therefore, minor traffic violations are considered infractions. Other less serious traffic violations are typically treated as misdemeanors. Misdemeanors are less severe crimes, usually punishable by a fine or imprisonment in a county jail for less than one year. Precise classifications vary on a state-by-state basis. However, typical examples of traffic misdemeanors include:

  • Failing to stop at an accident scene (hit and run)
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (DUI, DWI)
  • Driving without a valid driver’s license
  • Driving without insurance
  • Reckless driving

Drivers are often taken into custody for these misdemeanors and required to post a bail bond, just as they would for non-traffic crimes. Prison sentences for misdemeanor convictions are less lengthy than those for felony convictions. Other potential consequences of misdemeanor offenses are also usually less harsh. For example, drivers with misdemeanor convictions on their records may still be able to serve on a jury, practice their profession, and vote.

More About Traffic Felonies

In general, felonies are the most severe crimes in any system of criminal law, and felony traffic violations are no exception. A felony is any crime punishable by more than one year in prison or by death. So, a crime that has a sentence of only a fine or confinement in a local jail for under a year is not considered a felony.

In contrast, a particular state’s codes may label a crime a “gross” or “aggravated” misdemeanor and lead to a sentence of more than one year of incarceration in the state penitentiary system. This ensures that the so-called misdemeanor is, in many respects, treated as a felony. Examples of felony traffic offenses include:

  • Repeat DUI or DWI convictions
  • Certain hit and run offenses
  • Vehicular homicide

People convicted of felonies may have more restrictions on their rights than a person convicted of a lesser crime.

Traffic charges should not be taken lightly, especially when they rise to the level of a misdemeanor or felony. Consult with an experienced traffic ticket lawyer in your area, who may be able to “plead down” a serious traffic offense and minimize punishment for it.