A misdemeanor, when applied to criminal law, is defined as any offense other than a felony or treason. Being the least serious of these three classifications of crimes, a misdemeanor usually covers all minor offenses. In the United States, criminal codes vary among the fifty states but generally include such offenses as libel, slander, assault in the third or fourth degrees, conspiracy in the third and fourth degrees, and criminal tampering; along with more minor infractions such as violations of driving, fishing, hunting, and boating laws.
A misdemeanor is generally prosecuted by means of information (or prosecutor's information) rather than by indictment, which is how a felony is prosecuted. Both are accusatory documents that must supply information about the alleged illegal act such as time, place, and nature of the crime. However, when a misdemeanor is involved, the prosecutor's information is used to formally file a charge with the court based on the information gathered during the investigation. When a felony is involved, an indictment must be given to the court and presented to a grand jury because of the more serious nature of the crime. Persons found guilty of a misdemeanor are usually punished by probation, fine, or imprisonment in a jail (such as a county jail) or prison (excluding a federal or state penitentiary). The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor could likely be imprisonment in a county jail for less than one year, while a more minor penalty could be a fine of $100 for violating, for example, a municipal code.
Through the use of high-tech devices and modern laboratory techniques, forensic science is often used to prove that misdemeanors have occurred by detecting the presence of various substances in a victim or suspected criminal at a crime scene. For example, most DUI (driving under the influence) and driving while intoxicated/impaired (DWI) cases are misdemeanor offenses. Police officers who have stopped drivers suspected of driving under the influence of such intoxicates as alcohol and illegal drugs will often use a breath test (such as a Breathalyzer ) to ascertain whether the reasonable cause of the suspect's erratic behavior is due to such a substance.
A breath test—originating within the field of forensic science—which is given to an alleged intoxicated driver by a police officer involves collecting an exhaled sample of a suspect's breath at the scene of the incident. The police officer then analyzes the sample at the scene in order to measure the concentration of alcohol consumption; that is, to measure the amount of alcohol as a percentage of blood (0.08, for example, indicates that alcohol makes up 0.08 percent of the total amount of blood in a person's blood stream). Using such forensic analysis, the police officer can make a determination, based on specific state law, as to whether or not a person should be arrested. Today, alcohol breath-testing instruments are so accurate that their results are regularly used as evidence to prosecute misdemeanor cases involving drunk driving.
see also Breathalyzer®; Felony.
A misdemeanor is one of a class of offenses considered less heinous, and punished less severely, than felonies. Generally, misdemeanors are punishable by fine or by incarceration in facilities other than penitentiaries for terms of up to one year. Federal law and most state statutes classify all crimes other than felonies as misdemeanors. Two standards have traditionally been used to distinguish felonies from misdemeanors: the place of imprisonment (a penitentiary as opposed to a jail); and the length of imprisonment (more than one year for felonies, a lesser term for misdemeanors).
The Supreme Court has held that criminal defendants charged with misdemeanors are entitled to certain guarantees of the bill of rights. In argersinger v. hamlin (1972), an indigent defendant was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon, a misdemeanor offense, and sentenced to ninety days in jail. An attorney was not appointed to represent the defendant even though he did not waive this right. The Supreme Court ruled that the right to counsel was applicable to misdemeanors where the defendant received a jail term. In Scott v. Illinois (1979), however, the Supreme Court declined to find a right to counsel at trial where loss of liberty is merely a possibility and does not, in fact, occur.
The Supreme Court also held, in baldwin v. new york (1970), that the Sixth Amendment requires that defendants accused of serious crimes be afforded the right to trial by jury. This right applies to misdemeanors where imprisonment for more than six months is authorized.
Charles H. Whitebread
LaFave, W. and Scott, A. 1972 Criminal Law. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co.
mis·de·mean·or / ˈmisdiˌmēnər/ (Brit. mis·de·mean·our) • n. a minor wrongdoing: the player can expect a lengthy suspension for his latest misdemeanor. ∎ Law a nonindictable offense, regarded in the U.S. (and formerly in the UK) as less serious than a felony.
Offenses lower than felonies and generally those punishable by fine, penalty, forfeiture, or imprisonment other than in a penitentiary. Under federal law, and most state laws, any offense other than a felony is classified as a misdemeanor. Certain states also have various classes of misdemeanors (e.g., Class A, B, etc.).
Hence misdemeanant XIX.