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The criminal justice system generally breaks offenses into categories based on the seriousness of the crime -- drinking in public is a misdemeanor, while arson is a felony. But sometimes those distinctions are based not on the crime itself, but aggravating factors within the same crime.
So how are misdemeanors and felonies different? And how do courts distinguish between the two?
The possibility of higher fines and longer jail sentences is just the start. Which courts can hear which cases, how the trial will be run, and even how many jurors are required will differentiate a felony charge from a misdemeanor. And the post-prison effects of a felony conviction -- like restricted gun and voting rights -- are more serious as well.
Often, the same crime can be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the severity of the action. For example, stealing a small amount, known as petty or petit theft, is normally a misdemeanor, while stealing larger amounts of money or things of greater value, or grand theft, is generally a felony. State law can vary on the distinction, and sometimes it just depends on what you stole, rather than how much.
The same way theft can be elevated from misdemeanor to a felony, so can a DUI. If you have prior DUIs on your record, have an especially high blood alcohol content (BAC), or cause a serious accident or injury, you could be facing felony DUI charges.
Some assaults can be classified as misdemeanors. But there are certain people who are more strictly protected under the law. Nurses, doctors, and emergency medical personnel are among those, so you may want to think twice before getting upset at the hospital.
Yes, murder is a felony. But you can also be charged with murder if someone dies while you are committing a felony, even if you never intended for anyone to be hurt.
Felonies are serious offenses to begin with, and can have severe and long-lasting consequences. If you've been charged with a felony offense, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.