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Minor crimes under both state and federal law are classified as “misdemeanors,” with punishment involving monetary fines, community service, and a possible maximum jail time of less than one year.  The most common punishment for a misdemeanor conviction is a monetary fine.  Incarceration, if imposed, is usually coordinated with the defendant’s work or school schedule, and served over weekends.  Probation is common in misdemeanor cases. 

Types of Misdemeanors

Common, well-recognized misdemeanors include petty theft (shoplifting), public intoxication, vandalism, driving drunk (first offense), possession of an illegal substance (in a small amount) and leaving the scene of an accident (LSA).  Depending upon the jurisdiction, traffic offenses may be considered misdemeanors, or categorized separately as “infractions.” 

Attorneys are not guaranteed to defendants in misdemeanor cases.  Usually, special courts exist to deal with misdemeanor cases and juries are smaller than the standard number of 12.  In federal cases, U.S. Magistrates try all minor criminal offenses following the procedures delineated in Rule 58 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Long Term Impact of a Misdemeanor Conviction

Misdemeanors can have a serious impact upon the defendant’s future, regardless of how minor the crime.  Employment by the government as well as certain professional licenses may be denied someone with a misdemeanor criminal record.  Those seeking careers in law enforcement, teaching, or even driving a commercial bus may be barred due a misdemeanor conviction. 

Plea Bargaining Misdemeanor Charge

Most states divide misdemeanors into separate categories, distinguishing those that involve the possibility of jail time from those that do not.  Even with the most minor misdemeanors, criminal defense attorneys are advantageous in plea bargaining with the government to minimize the charge as well as the sentence to be imposed, if any. 

Examples of successful defense negotiations include Queen Latifah’s 1996 plea of guilty to a Los Angeles misdemeanor weapons charge and receiving two years’ probation and a monetary fine of $3310, and Mel Gibson’s 2006 no-contest misdemeanor plea to driving drunk,  receiving three years’ probation, $1600 in fines, and mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous attendance.


In some jurisdictions, expungement is available to clear a misdemeanor from an individual’s criminal record.  Expungement is a separate proceeding, begun by filing a new petition requesting that the court expunge, or clear, the record of the crime.  Expungement proceedings may take several months to a year, and are usually not available until the defendant has been released from probation or successfully completed the probationary term.