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What Is a Petty Misdemeanor?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Misdemeanors are a class of law violations that are often thought to be much less severe in scope than crimes called felonies. These violations may be further separated into what are called gross and petty misdemeanors. Gross misdemeanors usually are more serious infractions that might result in a person serving some time in jail. In contrast, a petty misdemeanor is typically an extremely small infraction that is punishable by fines only; in fact, some people call these non-criminal offenses. They may or may not create a criminal record.

Exactly what constitutes this type of misdemeanor is variable by region. Some potential infractions could include traffic tickets that do not involve driving under the influence of substances. Citations for behavior that a city or other region disallows like smoking in a designated non-smoking area or violating a city noise ordinance could fall under this category too.

One thing that may distinguish the petty misdemeanor from other forms of crimes is that these infractions usually have relatively low fines attached to them. Fines paid could be anywhere from a few dollars to several hundred dollars. In places like the US, the top fine for this type of misdemeanor is typically about $300 US Dollars (USD).

Another differentiation between the gross and petty misdemeanors is that many petty infractions don’t require attendance in court. Unless a person wants to challenge the citation, they ordinarily simply pay the fine and walk away from the problem. Most people find this more convenient than fighting a charge because these charges are unlikely to go on a criminal record, though traffic violations might be maintained for a short time on motor vehicle and driving records.

There can be one instance where a petty misdemeanor can create huge issues and that is if people cannot pay the fine. When this is due to financial hardship, it could be possible to negotiate directly with the court and create a payment plan. This may require a court appearance, or it might be something negotiable over the phone with the specific court involved. Ignoring the fine is never a good option and could ultimately upgrade the misdemeanor charge to something else.

This classification of non-criminal offense is designed to encourage good behavior on a number of levels. Many people see a petty misdemeanor charge as a slap on the hand, reminding folks to obey even the minor laws of a region. Though these are less serious infractions, they do deserve serious attention. Frequent small misdemeanor charges suggest a person is out of step with regional attitudes about safe or legal behavior, and accumulation of these charges may additionally become expensive.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By David09 — On May 11, 2011

Just because a petty misdemeanor does not show up in a criminal record does not mean it may not haunt you if you switch jobs. The reason is that employers conduct background checks, and my understanding is that they can go really deep into a background check.

Thus, a background check could reveal your misdemeanor if the employer wanted to be really thorough. A superficial background check will not show it however. All misdemeanors are not the same in an employer's eyes too. He will view a petty theft with far more seriousness than a traffic ticket.

By truman12 — On May 08, 2011

Its interesting to think about how the law makes distinctions between serious crimes and less serious crimes and how these can vary across regions. You might do something wrong in one state and get charged with a petty misdemeanor and then do the same thing in a different state and get a much harsher penalty. The law is subjective and this becomes really clear when you look about how certain areas react to certain kinds of misbehavior. You might get a $20 fine or a month in a jail cell.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia...
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