A Felony vs. Misdemeanor Crime

It may be confusing to tell the difference between which crimes are treated as misdemeanors and which are prosecuted as felonies. Generally, more serious crimes are charged as felonies. However, some violations can be treated as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the specifics of the individual case. Whether a defendant is charged or convicted of a felony versus a misdemeanor can have some serious consequences.

Massachusetts Misdemeanors and Felonies

Massachusetts law very simply defines felonies and misdemeanors, but it does not necessarily clear up the confusion between the charges. Under state law, "a crime punishable by death or imprisonment in the state prison is a felony. All other crimes are misdemeanors."

In more practical terms, the maximum penalties for a misdemeanor is Massachusetts in 2 ½ years in the House of Corrections. These crimes do not provide for the potential of time in state prison. Most of the time, misdemeanor convictions will result in a fine and probation instead of serving time in jail. A criminal defense lawyer can often negotiate better terms with the prosecutor in exchange for a plea deal.

On the other hand, felony offenses have a range of minimum and maximum prison time, depending on the crime, but there is no absolute maximum for the category of felony crimes. Since the death penalty was abolished by the state, the most serious felony counts can carry a maximum of life in prison. In some cases, where some activity could be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor, a plea deal may include being charged for the lesser offense.

There are thousands of criminal offenses under Massachusetts law. Each is categorized by penalty type as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Some of these violations contain minimum and/or maximum time in the house of corrections or state prison.

Examples of Misdemeanors

Most misdemeanors do not involve serious bodily injury, or major property damage, and are often thought of as more minor crimes. They often depend on the amount of damage done or value of theft. For example, larceny of $250 or less is a misdemeanor, while larceny over $250 could be charged as a felony. Some of the most common examples of misdemeanor violations include:

  • petty theft or shoplifting;

  • driving without a license;

  • trespassing;

  • operating a motor vehicle under the influence (OUI);

  • vandalism; and

  • possession for personal use of more than 1 ounce of marijuana.

Examples of Felonies

Felonies are more serious crimes, and the extended prison sentences are intended to reflect the seriousness of the criminal offense. Felonies can include crimes that resulted in serious bodily injury or death, crimes of violence, or crimes where the amount of theft or damage was high. It also includes a number of violations that are considered to be crimes against justice or crimes against the public trust. Even where no physical harm results, the law considers things like lying to the court, or corrupt public officials to be very serious crimes. Some common examples of felony violations include:

  • third OUI offense;

  • assault with a deadly weapon;

  • murder;

  • rape;

  • burglary;

  • forgery and counterfeiting; and

  • motor vehicle theft.

Reducing Charges to Misdemeanors

Prosecutors may not much discretion to charge a felony violation as a misdemeanor given the set of allegations; however, they can sometimes make deals, and charge a defendant with lesser misdemeanor charges and drop the felony charges. This will depend a lot on the individual criminal offenses. When defense lawyers present evidence or make arguments that weaken the prosecutor's case, the prosecutor may be more willing to make a deal. It is ultimately up to the defendant whether they want to plead guilty to a lesser charge, rather than take their case before a judge and jury. Melissa's "Three Strikes" Law In 2012, Massachusetts approved a habitual offender law. Known as Melissa's Law, it was based in part on California's Three Strikes sentencing law, enacted in 1994. Under Melissa's Law, parole eligibility will be eliminated after three or more convictions for violent felonies. These include a number of felony charges including:

  • motor vehicle homicide;

  • indecent assault and battery on a child under 14;

  • armed entry of dwelling house and assault;

  • armed robbery with a firearm;

  • forced rape; and

  • possession of child pornography.

In this case, being charged with a misdemeanor versus a felony could have serious consequences, including the possibility of no parole, forcing a defendant to serve full sentences, and even enforcing the completion of previous sentences.

Boston Area Criminal Defense Lawyers

At Dhar Law, LLP, our knowledgeable attorneys have years of experience representing clients charged with a variety of misdemeanor and felony charges. We have successfully defended our clients to get their charges reduced, dismissed, and found not guilty. If you or a loved one were arrested and are facing criminal charges, or have any questions related to felony or misdemeanor offenses, please contact our Boston offices today for a consultation.