In Michigan, breaches of the law are put into distinct categories. The categories are “felony,” “misdemeanor,” and “civil infraction.” Decisions on crime classification are made by legislators at the state and local level; the determination focuses on the seriousness of the crime. This post looks at those three categories in order from least to most serious.
Civil Infractions (often the result of municipal ordinance violations) are petty offenses that are typically punishable by fines, but not jail time. Because infractions cannot result in a jail sentence or even probation, defendants charged with infractions do not have a right to a jury trial.
A defendant who has been charged with an infraction is free to hire an attorney, but the state or municipality does not have a constitutional duty to appoint legal counsel. Often, prosecutors do not appear on behalf of the government in cases involving civil infractions. Traffic offenses are the most common form of civil infraction.
Civil Infraction Example. Laura receives a speeding ticket. After Laura and the officer who issued the ticket testify, the judge, or in certain circumstances a magistrate, determines from the evidence that Laura was speeding. Laura’s punishment is limited to a fine and the addition of points to her driving record.
In Michigan, misdemeanors are criminal offenses that carry up to one year in a county jail. Punishment for misdemeanors can also include payment of a fine, probation, community service, restitution, or a combination of these punishments. Defendants charged with misdemeanors are entitled to a jury trial. Indigent defendants charged with misdemeanors are entitled to the appointment of legal representation.
Certain misdemeanors are divided by class or degree and are defined as more serious misdemeanor offenses, called “high court misdemeanors.” These classifications determine the severity of punishment and can actually exceed the traditional punishment for a misdemeanor, however, those such offenses are limited in scope.
Misdemeanor Example. Chris is convicted of simple assault. The offense carries a maximum fine of $500.00 and maximum jail time of 93 days. It’s a misdemeanor.
Felonies are the most serious type of criminal offense. Felonies often involve serious physical harm (or threat of harm) to victims, but they also include offenses like white collar crimes and fraud schemes involving a significant threshold amount of money.
Offenses that otherwise are misdemeanors can be elevated to felonies for second-time offenders. A felony conviction, like a misdemeanor conviction, may not result in time behind bars. But felonies carry potential imprisonment that ranges from time in prison (a year is often the low end) to life in prison without parole.
As with misdemeanors, states may also subdivide felonies by class or degree such as murder or criminal sexual conduct.
Felony Example 1. Gary is convicted of felony assault with a deadly weapon even though the bottle that he threw at another patron in a tavern missed its intended target. Even though he failed to injure the intended victim, his behavior was intended to (and did) create a risk of serious physical injury.
Felony Example 2. Angela had two prior shoplifting convictions before being arrested for yet another shoplifting offense. Michigan law allows the prosecutor to charge shoplifting as a felony if the merchandise was worth a certain amount and the defendant has two or more prior shoplifting convictions. The prosecutor charges Angela with felony shoplifting.