What Is the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony

By Michael Klazema on 6/25/2019

Whether you are an employer running a background check for a prospective hire or a job seeker wondering how a run-in with the law will impact your hiring chances, you need to know the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony. We review the basic differences between these two criminal offenses and explore what constitutes a simple infraction.


Infractions are the least-severe violation of the law. Generally, an offender can resolve an infraction by simply paying a fine. This kind of offense does not show up on your criminal record and rarely necessitates court time, let alone jail time.

Traffic tickets are the most common type of infraction. If you get a ticket for driving 10 miles over the speed limit, you will be punished for breaking the law, but the offense will not contribute to a criminal record. Other examples of infraction crimes are trespassing, littering, and noise violations. These incidents will generally not show up on a background check—unless an employer runs a driving history check—and they do not require you to answer “Yes” if asked whether you have a criminal record.


Misdemeanors are more severe than infractions. Unlike a traffic ticket, a misdemeanor is a criminal offense. Misdemeanors fall into various categories depending on severity.

Federal guidelines classify misdemeanors as Class A, Class B, or Class C. Each class has a minimum and maximum jail sentence, though judges can waive jail time as part of a plea bargain. Here are the standard sentences for different classes of misdemeanors.

  • Class A: Up to one year in jail; minimum of six months
  • Class B: Up to six months in jail; minimum of 30 days
  • Class C: Up to 30 days in jail; minimum of five days

Some examples of crimes that are typically considered misdemeanors are petty theft, reckless driving, vandalism, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, and certain assault offenses. Marijuana possession was a misdemeanor in the past, but that classification is changing as more states legalize and decriminalize the drug. First-time possession of other drugs may also be charged as a misdemeanor depending on the jurisdiction and the amount in possession.


A felony is the most severe type of criminal charge. Federally, a felony is any crime with a sentence of one year or longer in prison—though some states don’t define “felony” at all. The crimes that fall into this category are often violent in nature or otherwise severely damaging, whether to people, property, or both. Examples of crimes that are typically classified as felonies are murder, rape, aggravated assault, manslaughter, burglary, arson, and animal cruelty.

As with misdemeanors, there are various classes of felony based on the severity of the punishment.

  • Class A: life in prison or the death penalty
  • Class B: 25 years in prison or longer
  • Class C: More than 10 years in prison, but less than 25
  • Class D: More than five years in prison, but less than 10
  • Class E: More than one year in prison, but less than five

At, our criminal background check reports always clearly state whether a criminal conviction was classified as a misdemeanor or felony.

If you have any remaining questions on this topic, feel free to contact us directly.

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