About Misdemeanors versus Felonies

What are the main differences between misdemeanor and felony charges?

Misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in jail. Felonies are punishable by more than a year in jail, or imprisonment. That is the basic definition. With a misdemeanor, you’re only looking at jail time. With a felony, you’re looking at possible imprisonment, and much more serious consequences. Typical misdemeanors include petty larceny, DUI, reckless driving, simple possession of marijuana, and misdemeanor assault and battery. Felonies could be more serious circumstances than the misdemeanors, for example grand larceny versus petty larceny. A petty larceny is theft of something worth than less than $200; a grand larceny is more than $200. The felony could be due to the degree of severity for the same type of act.

Who decides whether a case is prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony?

How a case is prosecuted lies within the realm of the prosecution’s office. Typically, the charge originates from the police, but whether or not it moves forward as a misdemeanor or as a felony is within the provenance of the prosecution. Ultimately, the judge decides whether or not a case rises to the level of a felony or a misdemeanor, or a crime at all.

What are the penalties if convicted of a misdemeanor offense?

By definition, a misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail, and up to a $2,500 fine. Different types of misdemeanors have assorted additional penalties. For example, DUI also carries with it a 12-month loss of license. Reckless driving is accompanied by up to a six-month loss of license. Other traffic offenses have different possible loss of license periods associated with a conviction.

What are some of the penalties that one might face if convicted of a felony?

It depends on what the felony is, and there are six different classes of felonies, as well as unclassified felonies. The least severe penalties for felonies come with the class six felonies. We also have unclassified felonies, and those typically stem from drug charges. For example, a first time possession with intent to distribute a schedule one or two substance is punishable by five to 40 years in prison.

How are felony cases handled in Virginia?

When you’re charged with a felony, there is an arraignment date. At that arraignment date, a person is notified that they need to get an attorney. They can see if they qualify for court-appointed assistance, or they can seek to hire their own counsel. The next court date will be set for a preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing is a hearing in which the prosecution puts on evidence. It feels a little bit like a trial, but it’s not. The court is simply there to determine whether or not there is probable cause to find that the person committed a crime. General district court does not have the jurisdiction to find someone guilty of a felony, all they can do is weigh the evidence that is presented to them, and determine whether or not there is enough to proceed. If they find that there is enough to proceed forward, then they certify the case. If they don’t find that there’s enough to proceed forward, then they do not certify the case. If the case is certified, then it moves to circuit court, in which a grand jury hears the evidence. The grand jury then determines whether or not there is a true bill. If there is a true bill, there is another arraignment in circuit court. After the arraignment, the case is scheduled for trial.

What is the court process like for misdemeanors in Virginia?

A misdemeanor has original jurisdiction in general district court. If it’s the type of misdemeanor for which the prosecution might be seeking jail time, then there will be an arraignment, in which you are notified that you have the right to an attorney. You can have court-appointed counsel if you qualify; otherwise you need to hire your own attorney. From there, if there’s an arraignment, then a trial date is set. If there isn’t an arraignment, then your first court date is your trial date. At a trial date, your attorney can talk to the prosecution, the officer who is involved, and any other witnesses who are involved. They can see if there is some sort of plea agreement to be made. If there is not a plea agreement to be made, then the case proceeds to trial.

What are the long-term consequences of a felony conviction?

A felony conviction essentially causes you to become a convicted felon for the rest of your life. That can be detrimental in getting a job, and it can also hinder certain benefits that you might be receiving from the government or from your employer. Some employers don’t maintain employment with felons, so you could lose your job. That will also hinder your ability of getting a new job in the future. In Virginia, you cannot purchase or own a gun as a convicted felon.

What are the long-term impacts of a misdemeanor conviction?

Misdemeanor convictions are very different than felony convictions in that they do not have the same stigma that felonies do. They are more minor, so more people commit misdemeanors on a day-to-day basis because the action is less severe. Misdemeanors can have a detrimental effect on someone’s career. Someone who is convicted of a DUI, for example, has to deal with possible licensing consequences. For someone who is convicted of petty larceny, something we call a “crime of moral turpitude,” that could have serious consequences on immigration, or also on their veracity as a person. Their credibility is hindered by being convicted of stealing.