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You never imagined that you or a loved one would get arrested and face criminal charges, but here you are. Now what?
First, you need to understand the charges against you and the severity of the sentence you may be facing. You may also want to consider the role a Philadelphia criminal defense attorney can play in helping you get a more favorable outcome in your case.
Under Pennsylvania law, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 106, crimes are either generally classified as felonies or misdemeanors. It is vital you understand the difference between these charges, the classification of the accusations you face, and other facts about sentencing in Pennsylvania. This information can better prepare you for conversations with your criminal defense attorney and help you make decisions about your legal rights.
Sentencing Ranks for Criminal Charges in Pennsylvania
While we’ll dig into the key differences between misdemeanor and felony charges, it can be helpful to understand how each type of conviction, including ungraded charges and convictions for serious crimes, compares. Here is a breakdown of all the criminal charges, ranked by severity in the eyes of the law:
- Murder, First Degree
- Murder, Second Degree
- Murder, Third Degree
- Felony, First Degree (F1)
- Felony, Second Degree (F2)
- Felony, Third Degree (F3)
- Ungraded Felony
- Misdemeanor, First Degree (M1)
- Misdemeanor, Second Degree (M2)
- Misdemeanor, Third Degree (M3)
- Ungraded Misdemeanor
- Summary Offenses
In general, a crime’s classification is primarily due to the scale of the crime in question. More serious crimes receive the first-degree classification, while less serious crimes fall under the second- or third-degree category. While the court system classifies crimes as a felony or misdemeanor based on the type of crime, the classification within that category depends on factors, including:
- Your criminal history
- The victims’ characteristics, including age or disability
- The seriousness of the crime
A judge will consider the state’s established sentencing guidelines for each degree when determining a sentence. Some misdemeanor and felony convictions have set minimum sentences that a court must follow. Other crimes have only general guidelines that a judge is not legally bound to follow. That means one’s criminal history, the damage caused by the crime, and other factors can influence the severity of their sentence.
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What Is a Misdemeanor Charge?
A misdemeanor is a less serious crime, relatively speaking. Because of this, the consequences of a misdemeanor offense are typically less severe than the punishment for felonies. Misdemeanors are more serious than summary offenses, which are petty offenses typically punishable by fines but not jail time.
So, misdemeanors are a sort of middle ground between summaries and felonies. In most states, like Pennsylvania, misdemeanor convictions carry up to five years in jail. They can also include probation, payment of fines, community service, and restitution.
List of Misdemeanors By Class
Under Pennsylvania law, misdemeanors fall under three levels:
- First degree, up to five years’ incarceration and no more than $10,000 in fines
- Second degree, up to two years’ incarceration and no more than $5,000 in fines
- Third degree, up to one year of incarceration and no more than $2,500 in fines
However, certain misdemeanor crimes, like driving under the influence (DUI), have mandatory minimums associated with them. This means the court must impose at least a minimum sentence set by law. For some crimes, the level will increase if the violation is a second or third offense of the same nature.
It’s also possible for someone to receive an ungraded misdemeanor charge, which bears the same weight and sentencing guidelines as a third-degree misdemeanor.
Here are a few examples of misdemeanors in Pennsylvania, broken down by class:
- Simple assault of a child
- Prostitution for the fourth or subsequent time
- Possession of a controlled substance, depending on prior offenses
- Theft of property worth less than $2,000 but more than $200
- Impersonating a public servant
- Simple assault of an adult
- Theft of property worth less than $200 but more than $50
- Prowling at night
- Defiant trespass
- Possession of marijuana
- Disorderly conduct
- Theft of property worth less than $50
What Is a Felony Charge?
While misdemeanors are relatively minor offenses, felonies are the most serious of crimes. Felonies often involve serious physical harm or risk of physical harm, though there are nonviolent felonies, such as white-collar crimes like fraud and other serious financial crimes. Another example is possession of a controlled substance with the intent to deliver is a felony in Pennsylvania. It is nonviolent but has very serious collateral consequences for those who use illegal drugs.
However, keep in mind that the court can elevate certain crimes that are generally misdemeanors to felonies if the offender has a previous record of similar offenses.
Where penalties for a misdemeanor charge primarily focus on time in jail and fines, the consequences of a felony can range from one year in prison to life in prison without parole or even the death penalty.
List of Felonies by Class
Like misdemeanors, Pennsylvania law separates felonies into three classes:
- First degree, up to 20 years in prison, and up to $25,000 in fines
- Second degree, up to 10 years in prison, and up to $25,000 in fines
- Third degree, up to 7 years in prison, and up to $15,000 in fines
Certain felonies in Pennsylvania carry a minimum sentence. The court must impose at least the minimum sentence for that crime regardless of other mitigating factors.
Alternatively, someone may receive a harsher sentence if they have a criminal history, especially of similar crimes. The severity of the crime is also taken into consideration. For example, a robbery where someone suffered injuries is much more serious than a robbery where the victim received threats but was not harmed.
Here are a few examples of felony charges in Pennsylvania by classification:
- Burglary of a home
- Arson endangering persons
- Possessing a gun on your person when you are already prohibited, or possessing a gun when you are prohibited by a prior gun possession case
- Aggravated assault with serious bodily injury caused or threatened
- Theft of property worth $500,000 or more
- Burglary of a commercial property
- Statutory sexual assault
- Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, no injury
- Aggravated indecent assault
- Possessing a gun in your home or car but not in your reach when you are already prohibited (prior felony, etc.)
- Theft of property worth less than $500,000 but more than $100,000
- Institutional sexual assault of a minor
- Carrying a gun without a permit and certain other gun crimes
- Possession with intent to distribute
- Possession of child pornography
- Theft of property worth less than $100,000 but more than $2,000
Under Pennsylvania law, there are also certain non-categorized felony offenses. In these cases, the court is responsible for determining the appropriate sentence based on the details of the crime in question. Non-categorized violations include first, second, and third-degree murder.
The court may also charge someone with an ungraded felony offense, which bears the same weight and punishment guidelines as a third-degree felony.
Felony vs. Misdemeanor Offenses
So, what is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?
The major difference comes down to the scale of the crimes. Misdemeanors are generally less serious crimes in which fewer people suffered harm, or the amount of monetary loss is less. Felonies are usually more serious with a wider range of harm, including physical, psychological, and financial harm.
Because felonies cause more harm, they typically result in stiffer sentences, including prison time and large fines. However, those with little to no criminal history may receive probation or the option to pay punitive damages to a victim for misdemeanor or certain low-degree felony charges. Those with felony charges sentenced to less than two years may receive alternative sentencing options, like time spent in county prison instead of state prison.
Another big difference between these two types of charges is losing some constitutional rights while serving time in prison or even after being released. In Pennsylvania, those convicted of felonies may not be able to:
- Vote while serving in prison or on certain pre-release statuses
- Run for public office
- Serve on a jury
- Receive financial aid for postgraduate study
- Qualify for certain government benefits
- Exercise their right to own or possess a firearm if convicted of a violent crime
Those with misdemeanor charges typically maintain their rights. However, certain misdemeanor charges may result in having one’s right to bear arms taken away to protect themselves and others. In addition, certain DUI charges may result in having one’s driver’s license suspended and being to complete safety school.
Once you know the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor, it is time to figure out your next steps. For that, you will want to work with a criminal defense attorney.
You should contact one as early in the process as possible. An attorney from our firm may be able to help reduce your charges, negotiate a plea bargain, or even have your case dropped altogether.
Talk With a Criminal Defense Attorney About Your Case Today
Attorney Marni Jo Snyder and the criminal defense team from the Law Offices of M.J. Snyder, LLC, is ready to go to work on your case today. We can help you understand your rights, explain the charges against you or those you may face, and outline your options for seeking a more favorable outcome in your case.
Our firm has successfully defended clients facing drug possession, assault, DUI, probation violation charges, and more. We are dedicated to providing clients and their families with thorough and professional representation. We’re ready to advocate for your rights and help you navigate the complex criminal justice system in Pennsylvania.
We offer free consultations to learn more about your case. We may be able to help you fight for your rights and your future. Call for your free consultation today.