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What's the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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The difference between a misdemeanor and a felony is not always clear-cut from state to state in the US, or in other countries. In general, it is fair to say that a misdemeanor can be defined by the maximum length of time a person can be incarcerated for the crime, usually no more than one year. Crimes with a minimum jail time of over a year are usually felonies. Moreover, one can say that any crime not a felony, is by nature a misdemeanor.

In the cases where purposeful damage has been done to property, or where property is stolen, the charge of misdemeanor or felony may be decided based on the dollar amount of damage or missing property. For example, in Arizona, if one incurs purposeful damage that costs under $250 US dollars (USD), he or she is charged with a misdemeanor. If however, the damage is between $250 - $2000 USD, the charge is generally a class 6 felony. Higher amounts of damage may up the class of the felony and result in more time in a penitentiary.

Committing a misdemeanor after the age of 18 means that this will remain on one’s records. Potential employers who conduct background checks will generally know about these charges, so it is important to be honest if one has been convicted of a crime. A felony will also remain on the records, particularly if committed by an adult. In these cases, some people with felony convictions have difficulty finding employment, which can contribute to criminal recidivism.

If one commits a misdemeanor prior to one’s 18th birthday, such as disturbing the peace or committing petty theft, records can be expunged when one turns 18. This may not always be the case with felonies, especially if those accused are charged as adults. Even if one is not convicted of a crime, an arrest record may still exist, which may be problematic on background checks when one seeks employment.

Misdemeanor crimes tend not to bar one from working in public law enforcement or the armed forces. Some felonies committed by minors may be overlooked as long as the person can prove changed behavior. In most cases, however, a felony conviction bars one from working for most military branches, and might also influence one’s ability to get security clearance for jobs in the private sector. If you have committed a misdemeanor and cannot get the record expunged, there might be help if you are able to clearly explain the crime, and how you have changed since it occurred.

Regardless of whether a crime is classed as felony or misdemeanor, certain crimes will bar one from employment in certain fields. Any crimes that require one to register for life as a sex offender means that one cannot teach or be employed in a job that gives one regular contact with children. Most sex offense crimes are felonies, but occasionally plea bargains can reduce charges to misdemeanors. This may affect length of time incarcerated, but will not affect laws regarding registry as a sex offender.

Some feel that the distinction between felony and misdemeanor is occasionally arbitrary. For example, in some states, domestic violence against a spouse or child is a misdemeanor. In other states it is a felony. It seems to many that it is unfair to commit the same crime and receive less punishment because of softer laws. A current petition is being circulated to direct the federal government to urge states to consider all forms of domestic violence as felonious offenses. Many other legal groups are also trying to address the inherent unfairness of some crimes’ classifications.

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 , Writer
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 anon291916 — On Sep 17, 2012

If you've never been in trouble but one time in your life, and the misdemeanor that you got was six months non-reporting probation with no jail time, and you've never been in trouble again and happened 20 years ago, would it still be on your record or would it have been expunged?

By anon280451 — On Jul 17, 2012

I received a worthless check misdemeanor 20 years ago, that I paid all the fines and everything. Will this show up on a criminal background investigation?

By anon265413 — On May 01, 2012

If a person pleads out to a misdemeanor breaking and entering and theft of personal property, and it is the first offense with no priors, will that constitute jail time?

By anon260144 — On Apr 09, 2012

No, you can't buy a gun with a felony and also employers do check and I wouldn't hire someone with crimes other than violent ones unless I knew for sure that the person has truly changed.

By anon250847 — On Feb 27, 2012

I have two misdemeanors, one a DWI that happened in the early 90's when I was 21 and another a petty theft charge years later. Both were related to chemical dependency issues. It's been seven years since the theft case was disposed of, and the DWI has (after 15 years) gotten off my driver's abstract. Currently I hold a CDL and Hazmat endorsement. But I can attest to the fact that getting forgiveness from society as a whole (especially the job market) is truly a feat of the impossible -- like trying to climb Mount Rainier in a pair of sandals.

My advice to those who are worried is be honest. Employers may be hard-nosed but they *really* don't like people who lie. And contrary to what people make petty theft out to be as the worst sin imaginable, violent crimes are truly the worst.

As an employer, I'd give a second chance to someone convicted of theft or drugs who had turned their life around, but I'd always be leery of someone who'd served time in prison for assault/murder.

By anon244009 — On Jan 30, 2012

To all of you who have questions about what is on your record, I recommend you google background checks. Pick one of the choices, pay the fee and run a background check on yourself. That is what employers use, so you will know what they are seeing.

By anon229629 — On Nov 14, 2011

I was convicted of a open-ended felony in 2010. I served one year of probation this past August and the conviction has now reduced to a misdemeanor. What do I put on my job applications when it states if I have been convicted of a felony?

By anon224346 — On Oct 22, 2011

I was charged with hit and run seven years ago. When the police showed up, they told me I was not arrested. I paid a $500 fine and related fees. No jail time or public service done.

Now I have a research and development job offer from a big company within the cosmetic industry. Will this hit and run record make them take the offer back? I am so worried now.

By anon191656 — On Jun 29, 2011

i got charged with a felony for receiveing stolen property in feb 1990. i was put on probation, and had to do four months in the county jail. That's been 21 years ago. Can I buy a handgun?

By anon177982 — On May 19, 2011

I was told that a second degree misdemeanor in the state of FL takes 10 years to be removed from your record, and you have the option of sealing, but only once per lifetime!

By reginarichie — On May 05, 2011

i am being charged with theft. its a class C felony. this is my first offense. what is the most i can get? do you think i will have ta do jail time?

By anon144073 — On Jan 18, 2011

what does it mean when a person is found guilty on three counts of first degree sexual abuse?

By anon135514 — On Dec 19, 2010

i would like to know if you have a misdemeanor case and your case has been discharged and it happened a year ago, and now I'm going take a vacation in the philippines. i'm an immigrant and my question is i can still be able to get back here in U.S even though i have a record of a misdemeanor?

By anon131924 — On Dec 04, 2010

I would like to know if I had a felony over 25 years ago could I obtain a gun permit?

By anon130350 — On Nov 28, 2010

I have a question. i got pulled over last month and had an 18 pack of beer. so i got charged for minor in possession of alcohol i was 20 at the time, but i just turned 21 and i don't have to go to court till next month. do you have any idea what will happen to me?

By anon121939 — On Oct 26, 2010

I was charged with a Class 1 Misdemeanor in Arizona, got fined for $600 in a court. My main concern is if my crime is considered a felony when applying for a job? or at what point a background check is a disclosure?

By anon114550 — On Sep 29, 2010

I just got hired today and I didn't disclose my felony that i had gotten in 1997, because before I applied to the same company and I disclosed this information and was not hired.

I have never even had a speeding ticket in my life this felony was for two counts of check fraud. They were my own checks and I was not responsible about balancing my check book and thought nothing about them not clearing.

Well, I got put on probation and had a fine of $1,587 which was paid in full but my lawyer didn't plea bargain at all and in Wyoming you can't get it wiped off or expunged.

I have never written a bad check ever again in my life and have decent credit. But I don't know how to explain this to the employer. I am supposed to start work tomorrow, pending the background check.

I'm totally stressed out and am serious about working. I want my life back.

By anon110489 — On Sep 12, 2010

My friend and I were arrested for having cocaine in our possession some years ago. My friend told the officer that the drugs were hers (true). The court sent me to a drug program which was completed and the case was dismissed.

This is a misdemeanor, which is on my record. Most employers denied me a job. What can I do to be re-employable?

By anon106724 — On Aug 26, 2010

I'm married to a marine, and I want to get a job on base, but I have something pending on my record. I was babysitting and something accidentally happened to the baby.

I don't know what they are going to do to me, but when they investigated everything they saw that it was not intentional and that it was an accident. I went to a job interview, and as I was trying to be very honest about my background. I don't know if they will hire me for this.

If I remember correctly the investigator told me that if I was to try to get a government job, or a job on base, that they would see this and may question this, but if I tried to get a job in the civilian world, they will not check that because it was investigated by military officials.

Is this true? Am I going to have to live with that on my record and be denied jobs? is there any way of taking that off of my record, so that it would save me the embarrassment and shame, for future jobs?

By anon101789 — On Aug 05, 2010

there is no different between criminal records and arrest records as far as the law is concerned. When you pull up your criminal history record, everything shows up -- even things that where thrown out of court or dismissed at the very last page will list how the case was dealt with but i am speaking as an HR manager here.

The fact is, most employers don't even bother to look to see what you were charged with then to even get to the point to find how it was disposed of.

By anon83338 — On May 10, 2010

if you are convicted of a misdemeanor, how can they change it into a felony in a 20 year time span?

By anon81223 — On Apr 30, 2010

If found guilty for vehicular manslaughter and placed on 10 years probation, will a moving violation or running a red light or disturbing the peace by loud noise (not all in the same year) be cause for probation revocation?

By anon76462 — On Apr 10, 2010

Are there any answers posted to these questions? They reflect some of the same questions I have, but I would like to know some answers.

By anon75519 — On Apr 06, 2010

If on probation, the diversion program in one state can travel to another and get a petty theft misdemeanor charge which requires probation in that state, but can be done by mail but they are going to do a criminal check first. will the probation and charges from other state show up and will new the charges and probation go back to state where you live?

By anon74605 — On Apr 02, 2010

I was living in the United States, in the year of 1993 to 1997. During this time I committed 3 felonies (no driving license, high speed) and the last time I checked my criminal record now I'm accused of a misdemeanor child abuse.

I'm really scared. I'm Mexican and I don't live in the US, but I have the necessity of traveling around the world and the last time i tried to go to Canada, all of my criminal record appeared in the Canadian criminal files.

My next question is: How is possible for me to clean my criminal record back in the US if I'm a illegal alien but is very important for me to have a clean criminal record? Can i do that?

By anon72896 — On Mar 24, 2010

i was wondering: about 13 years ago i got a class c misdemeanor charge. Will it be on my record for a background check? Also I don't live in that county anymore.

By anon72743 — On Mar 24, 2010

Is it possible to get my felony downgraded to a misdemeanor?

By anon69076 — On Mar 06, 2010

Do misdemeanors ever come off your record?

By anon67724 — On Feb 26, 2010

i plead guilty to breaking and entering in 1995. i had just turned 18 and was stupid. I got caught in the act of stealing a six-pack of beer from and friends parents garage.

When i was arrested i was charged with aggravated burglary, a first degree felony. being young and dumb i took the crappy deal. in the 15 years that have passed, i have been turned away from many jobs and career path. all this for a six pack of beer.

By anon67040 — On Feb 22, 2010

if i stop paying my ex-wife $3,500 monthly for alimony from my VA/Navy disability and Social Security, would i be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony? I live in Nevada.

By anon66349 — On Feb 19, 2010

I was charged last year for a misdemeanor in 2009. It was for leaving the scene of the accident. I am looking for employment now. Would this stop me from getting a job. This is in Virginia. The reason I left the scene of an accident is because I did not realize I was involved in an accident until the police pulled me over.

By anon61028 — On Jan 17, 2010

i feel the difference is that one crime varies in many different way, plus the fact that one means more or less time a year.

By anon60916 — On Jan 17, 2010

should you lose your license for hitting a stop sign or street post, even after you serve 10 days in jail (accused of hit and run of stop signs, leaving scene of accident), nothing else involved, just the street signs, and does this go on your driving record as such, and if so can you write the licensing place and explain it?

By anon60583 — On Jan 14, 2010

I am a 38 year old female. Now that my kids are grown i want to get a career going. i have had good obs but now i want to attend college and maybe be a nurse or officer.

About 14 years ago i was charged with aggravated assault with severe bodily injury. I served my time, meaning i had no priors and i got 10 years' probation which ended four years ago.

What do i need to do or will it show i am not a troublemaker.

i really would like to go to nursing school or something in that area but it just brings me to a halt when i see this. i have not done anything stupid since. please help! this happened in san antonio and i now live in Eagle Pass, texas.

By anon60265 — On Jan 12, 2010

when employers do criminal background checks, are they looking for misdemeanor charges?

By anon55620 — On Dec 08, 2009

what is the charges for larceny grand theft?

Is it a felony or misdemeanor?

By anon54606 — On Dec 01, 2009

If you are under 18 and have gotten in trouble with the law in NJ for b&E in a vacant house and smoking pot on that property, is that considered a felony, and do you have to put it on your applications for employment after probation and fines are served?

By anon53875 — On Nov 25, 2009

I was put on a medication for my sleep disorder. The medication kept me awake for several days.

To make a long story short, I wound up hallucinating and bit a police officer. I was convicted of resiting arrest and assault on a public official inflicting serious injuries because I bit his finger.

It has already cost me jobs because looking at my record, most employers think I am a violent crazy person. What should I do to change this perception?

By anon51409 — On Nov 05, 2009

Will a misdemeanor for domestic violence stay on my record if I (1) bring up the fact that I wasn't given a chance to fill in a report telling my side of the story and (2) eventually prove that I was not the aggressor?

By anon49025 — On Oct 16, 2009

If I was charged with a misdemeanor and a violation can that turn into a felony?

By anon45814 — On Sep 20, 2009

if you receive to many misdemeanors for the same code but different violations can it turn into a felony?

By anon45537 — On Sep 17, 2009

I was wondering do misdemeanors ever come off you record or where employers do background checks?

By anon45165 — On Sep 14, 2009

why can't I go to trucking school if I have a misdemeanor?

By anon44295 — On Sep 06, 2009

Can a person's record be expunged if they were convicted of petty theft after their 18th birthday? This misdemeanor happened over 20 years ago and the person has completely turned their life around. What can this person do to get this cleared off his or her record?

By anon41624 — On Aug 16, 2009

I have a misdemeanor deferred charge. Will I have problems with my immigration application VAWA? I am married to a USA citizen and have three kids. Thanks.

By anon40307 — On Aug 07, 2009

If I am convicted of misdemeanor dui in one state, how will it affect me in another state?

By anon37071 — On Jul 16, 2009

can i get a class 3 gun license even though i have a misdemeanor of destruction of property under $500

By anon34724 — On Jun 27, 2009

I was convicted of a misdemeanor in Raleigh, NC while in college. I was placed in the 1st offenders program and had my record expunged upon completion of the program. What box should I check when asked on an application if I was ever convicted?

By anon28005 — On Mar 10, 2009

What I am posting below happened to me;

If one commits a misdemeanor prior to one’s 18th birthday, such as disturbing the peace or committing petty theft, records can be expunged when one turns 18. This may not always be the case with felonies, especially if those accused are charged as adults. Even if one is not convicted of a crime, an arrest record may still exist, which may be problematic on background checks when one seeks employment.

It happened to me in 1973. Later on I joined the US Navy. I had a security check done prior to shipping out to boot camp. I also had a few other security checks because my job required a high level Top Secret Clearance. Even though the Navy had my original clearance I had to be cleared by the FBI. This was between the years 1981-1987. In 1998 after 25 years I was driving up to Montreal with my GF. The woman at the border booth told us to pull over to the office. We got in the office and they separated us and were asking questions. They ran both of our ID's and they told me I had a problem. I was in shock when I was told that the NCIC computer showed a misdemeanor arrest back in 1973 prior to my 18th birthday. I spent the next 4 hours in hell. Between the Canadian Customs and the US Border patrol. I could not believe that with all the security and background checks I had gone through it showed up on their computer. Now i wonder if they will stop me some 36 years later.

By anon26969 — On Feb 22, 2009

If you're a convicted sex offender, you might as well not apply for a job in the first place. Start your own business.

By anon26232 — On Feb 10, 2009

If someone gets hit with conspiracy of assault in a 2nd degree is that a felony or a misdemeanor?

By anon25736 — On Feb 02, 2009

What could happen to a health care professional's status and license when found guilty of a crime?

By anon25332 — On Jan 27, 2009

What does Escape 3 mean? And what is it classified as? About how many years can you get for it?

By anon23437 — On Dec 24, 2008

I was wondering I got a ticket for street racing but the officer let me off with just a citation and impounding my vehicle for 30 days. but didn't take my license away. whats the penalty for that? Im 27 but my first and last offense. I know it could have been 10 times worse. What is the penalty?

By anon21171 — On Nov 11, 2008

I recently was arrested on driving with a suspended license (honestly I didn't know) and when I arrived at booking I found out that I had an outstanding warrant due to a bad check that I wrote...all of this happened in the state of Georgia. What I wanted to know will all be on my record permanently?

By anon18934 — On Oct 02, 2008

If one has a felony in one state and it is considered a misdemeanor in another, how does that show up on a CORI in the misdemeanor state? Or does it not show up at all? Do you have to go to the state where it is a felony and have it reduced? AZ has different levels of felonies, A-d I believe so one is a lesser felony even there? Thanks.

By frywife — On Sep 28, 2008

When someone has been charged for a non-violent felony and have successfully fulfilled probation, how long must they wait in order to be able to have a license and own a gun?

By anon18456 — On Sep 23, 2008

can a person be not considered for a job because of a misdemeanor and was cleared of the charges?

By tony100 — On Jul 24, 2008

If someone were to use a weapon to cause a battery, but this person caused minimal damage by using this weapon (a heated up wooden tool) but the person who got hurt (Burnt) in my case only got a red mark, and a little burnt skin, What will the batterer receive, a Misdemeanor or Felony? This person has no prior convictions.

By Lyndel — On Jun 26, 2008

What does a Class E Misdemeanor mean? What affect does this have on an individual if convicted?

By anon14849 — On Jun 25, 2008

is there a time limit of the length of time that can pass between the time that a person is arrested and the time they are officially charged for a crime?

By imarti1 — On Jan 24, 2008

Anyone know anything about misdemeanor laws in Arizona and employer background checks?

By anon6542 — On Jan 01, 2008

can someone serve time for leaving threatening

message on someone's cell phone? and isn't stalking a charge where the victim has to have proof as in seeing you committing this offense, and when is stalking considered a crime, more than one to many

By anon6149 — On Dec 17, 2007

What is the approximate time for prostitution charges? Is that a different charge than a misdemeanor?

By anon3071 — On Aug 08, 2007

What is the difference between first degree and second degree misdemeanor...For that matter--in florida, what is the punishment for a second offense of dui within a one year perion..Not to mention a charge of possession of cocaine?

By anon3045 — On Aug 07, 2007

10 Years ago i underwent ard when i was received a citation for possession of drug paraphernalia. I had just turned 18 at the time. How do i answer the question if i have ever been convicted of a crime? There was no conviction but i believe i now have a record. Also if i get another charge for anything would this be considered a first or second offense?

By anon1642 — On Jun 10, 2007

if a person was arrested because he had a gun 3 years. ago 1st offense, is this a felony?

By anon915 — On May 08, 2007

I was wondering do misdemeanors ever come off you record or where employers do background checks?

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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