What’s the Big Deal, Isn’t a Crime a Crime?
Not all crimes are created equal. Not only are they punished differently, some expose you to a fine, some to either a fine or time in the county jail, or both, while others require a fine, prison, or both, they also carry different “collateral” consequences. In other words, not only are you sentenced to a fine, jail/prison, or both, but there are also other consequences that go along with a conviction – depending upon the nature of the offense, and the seriousness of the offense.
How Do I Know if it is a Misdemeanors or a Felony?
Texas, like virtually every other State, in the U.S. divides its crimes into two overarching categories – misdemeanors and felonies. Not only that, but Texas breaks felonies into two categories – State Jail Felonies, and every other felony, and misdemeanors into three categories – Class A, Class B and Class C. The various categories govern the type of punishment that you face, but also carry with them differing collateral consequences. Don’t take the classification lightly, as what you face can adversely impact your future in terms of employment, housing, and possibly voting.
Defining Misdemeanors and Felonies
At its core, the classification of crimes into misdemeanors and felonies revolves around the potential punishment one faces, along with how the legislature felt about certain activities from a public policy standpoint. In a nutshell, if you are facing no more than one year in jail, and this means county jail, not a State Jail Felony Punishment Facility, you are looking at a misdemeanor. If you are facing the potential of more than a year in jails/prison/State Jail Punishment Facility, then it is a felony. If it is just a fine, it could be misdemeanor, or just a violation of a city/county ordinance. From a misdemeanor standpoint, a Class A misdemeanor is more severe than a Class B or Class C, while a First Degree felony is more severe than a Second, Third, or State Jail Felony.
Misdemeanors are generally considered less severe offenses than felonies. However, certain misdemeanors carry significant collateral consequences that some felonies do not. Let’s take a look, from most severe to least severe of the various groups of misdemeanors.
- Class A Misdemeanor: This is the most serious level of misdemeanor in Texas. It includes offenses such as Assault Causing Bodily Injury – Family Violence, DWI 2nd Offense, DWI with a BAC at .15 or above, possession of certain controlled substances (think Xanax), and thefts over a certain value. A conviction carries with it up to a year in jail, a fine not to exceed $4,000.00, or a combination of both. With that said, a DWI 2nd, does carry with it a minimum jail sentence of 3 days, but you could face a minimum sentence of 30 or 60 days in jail, in addition to a fine and other court costs and fees.
- Class B Misdemeanor: This category includes offenses like criminal trespass, driving while intoxicated (first offense), driving while your license is invalid, and possession of up to two ounces of marijuana. While a Class B misdemeanor can result in a jail term of up to 180 days and a fine of up to $2,000, there are some exceptions. For instance, a DWI 2st offense can require up to 72 hours in jail as a minimum sentence, as opposed to just a fine.
- Class C Misdemeanor: This is the least serious category of misdemeanor in Texas. It comprises minor offenses like traffic violations, disorderly conduct, and public intoxication. Penalties for a Class C misdemeanor can include a fine of up to $500 but no jail time.
Felonies are more serious offenses and often involve actions that cause significant harm or pose a greater threat to society, or for those facing an enhanced crime due to previous misdemeanor convictions – think DWI 3rd or more, or a second or third Assault Causing Bodily Injury – Family Violence charge. In Texas, felonies are categorized into five degrees, ranging from State Jail Felony (the least serious) to Capital Felony (the most serious).
- State Jail Felony: This is the least severe felony category in Texas. It includes crimes such as certain theft offenses, possession of a controlled substance, and some types of fraud. A state jail felony conviction can lead to a jail sentence in a State Jail Felony Punishment Facility (think minimum security, oft ties privately run facility) ranging from 180 days to 2 years, along with a fine of up to $10,000.
- Third-Degree Felony: Offenses such as burglary, certain drug offenses, and certain types of assault fall under this category (for instance Assault Causing Bodily Injury – Family Violence, with a prior conviction, along with Assault Causing Bodily Injury – Impeding Breath or Blood Circulation are both third degree felonies). A DWI 3rd offense is a third degree felony, along with spitting on a police officer. A third-degree felony can result in a prison term with the Texas Department of Corrections ranging from 2 to 10 years and a fine of up to $10,000.
- Second-Degree Felony: This category includes crimes like manslaughter, aggravated assault, assault on a peace officer, robbery, and certain sexual offenses. Conviction for a second-degree felony can lead to imprisonment ranging from 2 to 20 years and a fine of up to $10,000.
- First-Degree Felony: Some of the most serious offenses, including aggravated robbery, certain types of murder, and sexual assault, are classified as first-degree felonies. Penalties for a first-degree felony conviction can include imprisonment ranging from 5 to 99 years or life, along with a fine of up to $10,000.
- Capital Felony: This is the highest level of felony in Texas and is reserved for extremely serious crimes such as capital murder. A capital felony conviction can lead to the death penalty or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Implications and Considerations
The distinction between misdemeanors and felonies goes beyond just the classification of crimes; it has far-reaching implications for individuals accused of these offenses. Some of the key considerations include:
- Legal Consequences: The penalties associated with misdemeanors and felonies can have a profound impact on an individual’s life. Beyond fines and imprisonment, individuals may also face probation, community service, restitution, and other court-mandated requirements. Furthermore, the state can use past convictions against you in an effort to enhance the punishment that you face. For instance, if you already have a Class A misdemeanor conviction, and are charged with a new Class A misdemeanor, the state can seek mandatory minimum jail time. Similarly, if you have a prior felony conviction with a prison sentence, your next felony could be subject to the punishment reserved for the next higher level of felony – your 2-10 for a Third Degree felony is not 2-20, or your 2-20 range for a second degree felony becomes 5-99.
- Criminal Record: A misdemeanor or felony conviction results in a criminal record, which can affect various aspects of a person’s life, including employment opportunities, or be used against you in certain civil cases. For instance, a misdemeanor theft conviction is a crime against moral turpitude, which means that you are not considered trustworthy, and it can be used to impeach your credibility should you testify in any type of court proceeding. Furthermore, you now have to mark the box on any job application that you have a criminal conviction, unless you get a pardon – not something that is likely to happen in Texas.
- Collateral Consequences: In addition to direct legal penalties, individuals convicted of certain misdemeanors, along with virtually any felony also face collateral consequences, such as loss of professional licenses or deportation for non-U.S. citizens, refusal to readmit in the US green-card holders, inability to travel to neighboring countries, loss of the right to vote, loss of the right to possess or own firearms, and the inability to live in certain neighborhoods. This does not count the driver’s license suspension that accompanies DWI and possession of controlled substance convictions.
In conclusion, the classification of crimes into misdemeanors and felonies serves as a foundational principle in the Texas criminal justice system, as well as those of our sister states. Understanding these distinctions is crucial for both individuals accused of crimes and for society at large. Misdemeanors and felonies differ in terms of severity, potential penalties, and long-term consequences. It is important for individuals to be aware of their legal rights, seek appropriate legal counsel, and engage with the justice system in a way that upholds fairness, justice, and the rule of law.