What is a Misdemeanor? The Differences From Felonies

Evaluating a criminal background check correctly means answering some basic questions first, such as "What is a misdemeanor?" and "what makes a misdemeanor different from a felony?" Find out what these terms mean and why they're different here.

What is a Misdemeanor vs. a Felony? Understanding the Difference

When you order someone's background check report, you may discover no charges—or you could find a lengthy rap sheet that details multiple run-ins with the law. Without a clear understanding of the answers to basic questions such as "what is a misdemeanor?" you may struggle with this task. Understanding what the terms mean and assessing their severity or relevance to the job is essential to the screening process you undertake while hiring. Mistakes could be costly to the business or expose it to legal harm.

It's not always easy to know the difference between charges, especially if you need to distinguish between a felony crime and a misdemeanor charge. Background reports may even contain information about another class of crimes, called "infractions," that complicate the picture further. Add in the fact that some states do not clearly define what constitutes a felony, and any confusion is understandable—there's a lot to unpack here.

Let's clarify things by taking a closer look at what constitutes a misdemeanor and a felony while considering what these terms may mean if they appear on a background report you ordered.

What is a Misdemeanor? A Definition

A misdemeanor is often considered the first "level" of criminality rather than an act that violates a civil code. Misdemeanors are violations of criminal law instead. They are often defined in opposition to felonies, which most systems consider more "serious" criminal acts. A misdemeanor, therefore, is any lower-level type of crime that does not usually carry severe or strict levels of punishment for a conviction. For example, at the federal government level, misdemeanors are all crimes for which the potential sentence is usually one year in prison.

A "misdemeanor-felony" is any crime prosecutors may choose to charge as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances or severity of the crime. Many individual states also define misdemeanors similarly. However, not all do, instead classifying "lesser" crimes as misdemeanors on a category basis. Some jurisdictions also have laws stipulating that offenders who commit the same misdemeanor multiple times may face felony charges instead. 

Some common examples of misdemeanor crimes include:

  • Graffiti and vandalism
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Petty (or petit) theft
  • Driving under the influence (repeat offenses may become felonies)

In addition, some states and local jurisdictions also classify misdemeanors by severity. For example, a first-degree misdemeanor could mean a very serious and dangerous offense, such as DUI, while a third-degree misdemeanor might only be a public nuisance. It is advised to familiarize yourself with the difference between these classifications in the areas where you do business or in the locale where your applicant earned their criminal record.

What is a Felony? 

A felony is a more serious crime than a misdemeanor, one which may cause greater harm or pose a greater risk to the public. Most felonies are crimes for which the stated punishment is more than one year in prison and may escalate to the death penalty. As with misdemeanors, some states define them more strictly than others; some states have no formal felony definition whatsoever. Still, in every case, felonies are serious crimes that often have consequences far beyond a prison sentence. The loss of gun ownership rights, the right to vote, and social stigma can all follow a felony conviction.

Therefore, the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony is simple: one category is full of less serious, minor crimes with lighter punishments; the other is a higher category that carries increasingly serious punitive actions. Some examples of felonies include:

  • Murder
  • Sexual assault
  • Assault or battery causing grievous bodily harm
  • Drug trafficking or manufacturing
  • Manslaughter

As with misdemeanors, states may charge felonies according to a system of severity. Any felony record that appears on a criminal background check merits closer attention, whereas some employers using background checks see misdemeanors as less concerning. Ultimately, evaluation comes down to the policies of individual employers.

Is There a Difference Between State and Federal Felonies?

Yes—federal felonies are more well-defined and regimented than most state systems. A felony at the federal level is usually considered a crime committed against the nation's laws and, thus, typically carries a more serious list of penalties. There are five types of federal felonies to know. In order from the least severe to the most, they are:

  • Class E Felonies, the least severe, carrying punishments of 1 to 5 years.
  • Class D Felonies, carrying punishments of 5 to 10 years.
  • Class C Felonies, carrying punishments of 10 to 25 years.
  • Class B Felonies, carrying punishments of 25 years to life.
  • Class A Felonies. The most serious level, often comprising of murder charges or similarly severe crimes, these crimes carry punishments of life imprisonment or death.

Remember that federal convictions may not be reported on state-level background checks, which only assess records held in that state's criminal justice system. A federal or FBI background check may be necessary to uncover someone's federal criminal record if it exists. Since federal crimes are typically more serious than state crimes, employers may wish to incorporate such steps into their process to ensure they don’t miss any important information.

How Do Infractions Relate to Felonies and Misdemeanors?

Aside from felonies and misdemeanors, another category of crime also exists, the "infraction" or civil violation. Infractions are even less severe than misdemeanors because they typically do not carry jail time. Most infractions will not appear on background checks—although some jurisdictions do report them.

For example, traffic tickets are often civil infractions that may or may not appear on a criminal background check. A minor "disturbing the peace" or public intoxication citation might also be an infraction. These charges often come with monetary fines and may require individuals to perform mandatory community service. Generally, infractions are so minor that most employers will never see evidence of them on a background report.

Understanding Record Types Makes Pre-Employment Vetting Easier

At a time when many businesses need to hire new staff quickly, a background check process that is as swift and reliable as possible is a valuable asset. You can make well-informed decisions with fewer delays when you can capably analyze a background check for red flags and warning signs. Knowing the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor lets you better understand a candidate's suitability and prepare to take the next steps.

At backgroundchecks.com, enabling employers to better understand how to screen their workforce efficiently is a core part of our mission. We've built our extensive Learning Center with this goal in mind. From understanding the answer to “what is a misdemeanor?” to breaking down the details of legal compliance, a wealth of valuable and educational information is available for free. Find out more and build a better process today.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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