• James Notaris

    CPA, ESQ, Legal Editor

  • Tyler Dikun

    Executive Editor

    In Brief:

  • Criminal law is broken down into misdemeanors and felonies, but there is more to the story than that.

  • In most states, the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor is up to 1 year in jail or up to a $5,000 fine.

  • A felony is a much more serious crime in which law enforcement must then make a felony arrest. Felonies range from murder, kidnapping, extortion, and much more. 

  • Some states classify certain crimes as wobblers. A wobbler can either be classified as a misdemeanor or a felony.

We’ve all heard the saying, “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

As one may expect, the amount of time someone serves or restitution they pay comes down to the severity of the crime, this is all a matter of criminal law. As likely the most recognizable of the four types of law, people often think of criminal law in clear-cut terms. If you are accused of  assault, kidnapping, or murder, your case will be heard in a criminal court. 

Likewise, when someone commits arson, insurance fraud, or insider trading, they will face a criminal trial. Criminal law differs from civil law because the punishment is often forfeiture of certain rights, imprisonment, or even deaths. In civil law, a case is typically resolved with a monetary payment. Criminal law can be broken down into two components – misdemeanors and felonies.

What Is A Misdemeanor?

Misdemeanors inhabit the lower end of the criminal spectrum. This type of criminal offense refers to traffic offenses, minor assaults, petty theft, etc. In a majority of states, the maximum punishment for committing a misdemeanor criminal act is typically no more than one year or up to $5,000. Some states classify misdemeanors by severity of the crime.


A class B misdemeanor would be assigned to someone speeding while someone who assaults another but does not cause bodily harm would likely be given a class A misdemeanor. In most states, someone with a  class C misdemeanor cannot be fined more than $1,000 or be imprisoned for more than three months.

What Is A Felony?

On the more severe end of the crime spectrum lie felonies. Drug dealing, rape, murder, arson, kidnapping, blackmail… are all examples of felonies. In contrast to misdemeanors, felonies typically require imprisonment for more than one year. 

It is understood that because felonies are such serious crimes, the punishment and its factors are considered equally as seriously. Some factors that influence felony sentencing include:

  • The severity of the harm done (serious injury vs. death)
  • Any mitigating or aggravating circumstances related to the case, such as children or the elderly being the target of the crime
  • Attitude of the local community, as well as the court, towards this specific type of crime
  • Any prior convictions, as first time offenders may be considered wobblers
  • Whether the defendant is currently on probation or parole
  • Whether a deadly weapon was used to commit the crime

What Is A Wobbler?

In states like Arizona, California, and Indiana, some crimes can be classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony. If someone commits a minor assault, but does so with a deadly weapon, they may be charged with a felony. In California, all offenses deemed wobblers are classified as felonies unless the prosecutor seeks to have the defendant charged with a misdemeanor or the judge reduces the felony to a misdemeanor. In some states, a felony can drop down to a misdemeanor if the offender completes their probation.

The Trial Of The Century: People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson (1995)

In what was deemed the “trial of the century”, star athlete and national icon OJ Simpson was charged with the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Simpson became the lead suspect in the case when LAPD found a bloody glove in his home. In a famous and bizarre scene, television stations cut from their ordinary programs including the 1994 NBA finals to broadcast a low-speed police chase involving OJ Simpson and his friend in a white Ford Bronco. 

The former star running back was represented by arguably the best defense team money could buy. Although Simpson did not have an alibi, a limo driver that was sent to pick the defendant up a few hours before the murders testified that he witnessed a strange man running up the driveway.

Shoe prints at the crime scene matched Simpson’s shoe size, DNA from the glove found at his house matched the deceased, and Simpson had recently purchased a knife that investigators believed was used for the murders. The prosecution’s mountain of evidence was systemically called into doubt by Simpson’s team of expensive attorneys, who made the dramatic case that their client was framed by unscrupulous and racist police officers.

Citing the questionable character of detective Mark Fuhrman and alleged blunders in the police investigation, defense lawyers painted Simpson as yet another African American victim of the white judicial system. The jurors’ reasonable doubt grew when the defense spent weeks attacking the damning DNA evidence, arguing in overly technical terms that delays and other anomalies in the gathering of evidence called the findings into question. On October 3, 1995, 140 million Americans tuned in as a not-guilty verdict was announced by the jury.

Criminal Law Is Helping To Keep Communities Safe

Criminal law serves as a reminder to potential criminals that justice is often carried out quickly and can be severe. It is this safe-guard that keeps communities safe and able to function. Although millions of Americans will never experience the criminal law process, it’s good to know that its laws stand guard against criminal actions.

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