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Infraction vs. Misdemeanor: What’s the Difference?

Judge's gavel and handcuffs on the table

If you or someone you love has received a ticket in the mail or in person, you might be wondering whether it is an infraction or a misdemeanor, and what the difference is.

Felony to Misdemeanor to Infraction

The legal system divides crimes into categories. These categories are there to break down crimes into severity. They go in order from felony to misdemeanor to infraction, from worst to least. The clear understanding of the differences between these categories can help decide whether to charge a person with misdemeanor vs infraction.

 There are different degrees of punishment for each as laid out in the table below:

Felony convictionMost severePrison or jail timeThousands of dollars in finesStays on your permanent criminal recordParole after prison time, which can impact your ability to get a job or move
Misdemeanor convictionMedium severityJail timeHundreds of dollars in finesStays on your record for a specific length of time but can be expungedProbation after jail time, which can impact your ability to get a job or move
InfractionMinimal severityNo jail timeUsually $250 in finesNothing on your recordNo probationary period

If you are facing a misdemeanor or infraction for a criminal offense, whether something becomes part of your criminal record depends on the conviction. A misdemeanor charge or felony conviction will almost always result in jail time, or prison time, a mark on your record that may be permanent, and a fiscal punishment upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. 

What Is an Infraction?

So, what is an infraction? It is a criminal charge for minor violations of the law. Most people have actually committed an infraction without realizing it was called that. Infractions include traffic violations such as:

  • Fix it tickets for broken lights or signals;
  • Failure to use a turn signal;
  • Tailgating;
  • Parking tickets;
  • Speeding;
  • Failure to yield to a pedestrian.

Other infractions include things like:

  • Violating a leash law when walking a dog;
  • Fishing without a license;
  • Camping without a license;
  • Housing violations, usually in relation to a rental property;
  • Noise violations.

What Is a Misdemeanor?

A misdemeanor is a criminal violation based on local, state, or federal laws. Misdemeanors are not as bad as felonies, but some gross misdemeanors might be close. Misdemeanors include things like:

  • Severe traffic violations such as reckless endangerment, e.g., speeding 30 mph over the speed limit;
  • Simple assault;
  • Animal cruelty;
  • Domestic abuse;
  • Trespassing;
  • Disorderly conduct;
  • Petty theft under a certain amount of money;
  • Driving on a revoked license;
  • Drug violations. 

The Differences Between an Infraction and a Misdemeanor

There are a handful of differences between an infraction and a misdemeanor.

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Court

If you are facing a misdemeanor charge, you might have to appear in court. Usually, you can hire a law firm and an attorney to appear on your behalf, and they represent you in court.

You might have to appear in court for both an infraction and misdemeanor, but in almost all cases of infractions, you don’t. Usually, you get a ticket, and on that ticket it has instructions for where and when to render payment for your fine. If you want to contest the ticket, then you might have to appear in court. 

For example, if you received a traffic ticket for tailgating, but you do not believe you were tailgating, and you have a car camera recording as proof, then you might contest the ticket in court and present your evidence before a judge. 

Fines

An infraction punishment will almost entirely consist of fines. These fines are often up to a few hundred dollars, no more. However, many local or county ordinances might have additional fines for minor traffic violations if you fail to pay on time, and such interest and additional fines can result in a much higher fee. 

Jail

When it comes to an infraction versus misdemeanor, your locality’s penal code might determine there is jail time or probation for a misdemeanor, depending on the crime’s severity. For an infraction, there is no jail time. 

License and jobs

You might have your license revoked with a misdemeanor, especially if your crime involved cars. Severe things like a first time DUI will result in a revocation of your license, time in county jail, and an appearance before a judge. With a good criminal defense attorney who knows the law in your area, you might get lesser charges to do with your local vehicle code dropped in exchange for probation, community service, and paying fines. With an infraction, it is unlikely you’ll lose your license. 

With a misdemeanor, especially a gross misdemeanor, your charge might result in a mark on your permanent record. Usually this stays for a few years, but in some states, you can pursue legal options to have it removed after a certain amount of time. During the time that this mark is on your criminal record, it can interfere with your ability to get a job, especially jobs that do criminal background checks. This does not happen for an infraction.

Probationary period

Another difference between misdemeanor and infraction is the probationary period after. If, for example, you are charged with petty theft, a consultation with a law firm might tell you that it could be a misdemeanor or an infraction, depending on what was taken. Stealing a candy bar might be an infraction, but stealing the cash in the register might be a misdemeanor. 

Now, a charge of a misdemeanor would result in a probationary period. That probationary period could be after you have served your jail time, usually lasting one to three years. It could also be in lieu of jail time if you take a plea bargain. 

Conclusions

Overall, misdemeanors are criminal violations that have to be resolved in court, while infractions are usually less severe violations of local ordinances, particularly traffic violations. Infractions are not nearly as severe as misdemeanors, and they don’t carry as many punishments. Understanding the differences between an infraction and a misdemeanor can help you determine the severity of any charges against you.

Article by Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson is a legal writer at Lawrina. Megan writes about different law practice areas, legal innovations, and shares her knowledge about her legal practice. As a graduate of the American University's Washington College of Law she is an expert of law in Lawrina's team and has a slight editing touch to all content that is published on the website.


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