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What Is the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony?

If you’re worried about your criminal record coming up on a background check, or are unsure whether you have a misdemeanor or a felony offense on your file, you are not alone. In this article, we will clearly explain the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony, how they will appear on a background check and what you can do about them.

There are a lot of people with something in their past they would rather forget. We all make mistakes but if you crossed the line and ended up committing a crime, it can haunt you for a long time, no matter how hard you try to put it behind you.

But that doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to being tagged a criminal for life. In the U.S., crimes are defined as either misdemeanors or felonies and there is a significant difference between the two. Unfortunately, not everyone is sure of the difference between the two, and the truth is that the line can be rather blurry. What’s more, figuring out what is on your record can mean the difference between getting that job or getting approval for that loan.

In this article, we are going to explain as clearly as possible the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony. We are also going to tell you how to find out what’s on your record, and what you can do about it.

What is a misdemeanor? 

In the U.S. a misdemeanor is generally classed as a minor offense. Misdemeanors can result in jail sentences, but the majority lead to either probation or fines.

A non-exhaustive list of misdemeanors under U.S. law includes such things as:

  • Assault
  • Disorderly conduct or public intoxication
  • Driving under the influence (DUI)
  • Driving while intoxicated (DWI)
  • Minor in possession of alcohol
  • Non-violent crimes (such as drug possession)
  • Petty theft
  • Resisting arrest
  • Trespassing
  • Vandalism or criminal mischief
  • Speeding tickets (in some states)

An easy way to tell whether you have been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony is the length of the jail sentence you were given. Under U.S. federal law, any crime which results in a jail sentence of one year or less is classed as a misdemeanor. If you received a longer jail sentence, you are likely to have committed a felony. However, you should note that this definition can vary from state to state. More on that below.

Classes of misdemeanors (federal & state)

Under Federal law, there are three different classes of misdemeanor:

  • Federal Class A – The most severe federal misdemeanors. These typically receive sentences of between six months to one year in jail.
  • Federal Class B – These mid-level misdemeanors are punishable by one to six months in jail.
  • Federal Class C – The least severe form of misdemeanor which can punishable by five to thirty days in jail. Anything lower than five days is considered a federal infraction.

But state laws can interpret misdemeanors very differently. Some are much more lenient than others. There is no set definition but in general, there are three classes of misdemeanor at state level:

  • High or gross misdemeanors – These are the most severe misdemeanors. They usually lead to either incarceration in a county jail or a fine of more than $1,000.
  • Ordinary misdemeanors – These are regular misdemeanors which can sometimes result in a short jail sentence but more typically lead to a fine of more than $500.
  • Petty misdemeanors – These are the least severe form of misdemeanor and will usually lead to a fine of less than $500 or, occasionally, a short jail sentence.

If you do have a misdemeanor on your record, it is important to find out which state it occurred in and how it is defined under that state’s laws. This is likely to affect how it appears on your record and also the possibility of getting it expunged from your record altogether (more on that below).

What is a felony?

If a crime is more serious than any of the above classifications of misdemeanor, it is classed as a felony. Felonies can be either violent or non-violent offences that will typically, but not always, result is a jail sentence of more than one year.

A few examples of felony offences include:

  • Homicide
  • Attempted murder
  • Rape
  • Arson
  • Burglary
  • Robbery
  • Child abuse
  • Money laundering
  • Stalking
  • Human trafficking
  • Criminal damage
  • Jail-breaking

As with mesdemeanors, the definition of a felony can vary is state law, so it is again worth checking how an offence is defined in the state it was committed.

Classes of felonies (federal & state)

Under US federal law, felony offences are broken down into five distinct classes from the most to least serious. These classes are:

  • Class A – The most serious crimes such as murder which will typically result in a sentence of life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
  • Class B – These are still very serious offenses likely to lead to a jail sentence of at least 25 years.
  • Class C – This category involves serious offenses such as involuntary manslaughter that would typically lead to a sentence of between 10 and 25 years in jail.
  • Class D – Lesser offenses with sentences of between 5 and 10 years in jail.
  • Class E – The lowest category of a felony with jail sentences of between 1 and 5 years.

At state levels, felony definitions can differ significantly. Some apply federal definitions, some use only the higher classes, while others have their own categorization system completely.

If you know which state your felony offences was committed it is worth doing some research into how that state defines a felony and how they record it.

There are a number of different factors that can affect the class at which a felony offence is prosecuted. These can affect not only the length of jail sentence handed down but also how the crime is recorded on your record. These factors include:

  • The severity of the harm done – Was the victim seriously injured? Were they killed?
  • Mitigating/aggravating factors – Things like who the victim was, and any specific provocation or mental health issues that were a factor.
  • Community factors – How the local community and the court feels about a specific type of crime.
  • Prior convictions – Whether you have already been convicted of other offenses.
  • Probation/parole – Whether you are already on probation or parole.
  • Armaments – Whether a deadly weapon was used to commit the crime.

What is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?

If you are still unsure about the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony, don’t fret. The differences in state laws and the blurred lines in the case of some offenses mean there is no one definition that applies to everyone. But there are some general rules we can apply to give a good indication.

If a crime results in a jail sentence of one year or less, it is likely to be defined as a misdemeanor in most parts of the U.S. If a crime warrants a longer jail sentence, it is likely to be considered a felony. 

Sometimes a misdemeanor can be upgraded to a felony offense if there are “aggravating factors”. A good example of this is assault. Assault is usually a misdemeanor offense. However, if the assault was carried out with a potentially deadly weapon, or if it was committed against a woman, a child, or a police officer, it can be elevated to a felony offense.

Other offenses that can be elevated if there are aggravating circumstances include:

  • Drink-driving
  • DUI
  • Domestic violence
  • Custody interference
  • Embezzlement

Another term you might come across is “wobblers”. These are crimes that can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or a felony, and can be defined either way. The term is also used if the person being charged is a minor or a first-time offender as this too can influence how a crime is defined.

How to find out if your misdemeanor or felony shows up on your record

For many ex-offenders, their criminal record can cause problems for the rest of their lives (sometimes even if charges have been dismissed). But whether you have been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony, this doesn’t have to be the case.

If you want to know what potential employers, family, and friends can see of your criminal history, the best thing to do is run a background check on yourself. This will show you exactly what criminal public records are out there about you.

If you do decide to go down this route, you need to be careful about which background checking service you choose. There are plenty of providers out there but some are far less thorough than others.

To get a conclusive answer about what criminal records there are about you, you need to find a background checking service which runs a comprehensive check of federal, state, and county records as well as looking anywhere else where there could conceivably be a trace.

Best background checking services for seeing misdemeanors and felonies

We have tested all of the biggest background checking sites to see which is the best for finding your criminal background. Our tests identified two sites which did a terrific all-round job:

1. Instant CheckMate

Instant CheckMate offers an impressive all-round service. Their comprehensive reports were among the very quickest we have tested, being well-laid out and really easy to follow. Instant Checkmate’s comprehensive criminal records searches dig out complete misdemeanor records as well as such details as sex offender registers, marriage and divorce records, details of relatives, address history, and social media records.

Their prices start at $34.78 per month, with a discount on three-month subscriptions at just $27.82 per month. This is a little higher than average but given the quality of their output, it still offers good value for money.

2. TruthFinder

TruthFinder is another site which offered extremely detailed research at a competitive price. They have a two-tier pricing structure, with prices starting at $27.78 for one month or just $23.02 for two months. If you opt for their basic package you will get a full criminal record check including such information as sex offender registers, driving records, and data about known relatives.

For their slightly more expensive premium package, you will get every record there is. TruthFinder is really detailed but they still manage to communicate their results in well designed and easy-to-read reports. There is 24/7 customer support available on a toll-free number too, so if you do have any issues, TruthFinder will be able to help day or night.

EXCLUSIVE DEAL: Want to run a quick, in-depth background check with TruthFinder? Give it a try with our special discounted subscription offer available to our readers only.

How long do misdemeanor and felonies stay on your record?

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), all misdemeanor arrests are wiped off your record after a period of seven years. This means that if enough time has passed your record could be clean. If you were arrested and convicted for a misdemeanor, that offense will still be on your record. But it’s not all bad news. Some background checks will only go back so many years. This means if your misdemeanor took place a while ago, it is quite possible that it won’t show on a check.

Some states, including Texas, California, Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, and Washington even have laws to prevent background checks from looking too far back. But even if your misdemeanor took place in one of those states, mistakes can still happen, which is why if you do have a misdemeanor on your file, you will probably want to get it expunged.

Felonies are more serious crimes and if you are convicted of a felony offense, that will stay on your record for life unless you manage to get it expunged. This is not the case if you have been arrested or charged (but not convicted) of a felony offense. This will stay on your record for seven years but then, under the FCRA, your record is cleared.

How to get a misdemeanor expunged

Getting a misdemeanor expunged from your record is usually fairly straightforward as long as you comply with all the necessary criteria and requirements. These will vary from state to state, but typically include:

  • Have completed your probation with no further incidents, violations, or penalties
  • Have no pending arrests or proceedings for any other criminal convictions
  • Have fulfilled the original sentencing requirements
  • Have limited prior charges (in some states the “three strikes” law is still in effect, and this may restrict your ability to get a third conviction expunged)
  • Have followed the state-required waiting period. This is usually between 1 and 3 years after being released from jail or completing payment of your fines

You do not have to seek formal legal advice before applying for an expungement but it is often advisable to do so to make sure you are not wasting time and money on a process you do not meet the requirements of.

If you do tick all these boxes, you can then submit a written expungement request to the relevant local court. This is a request for the court to review your conviction. They may take some time to provide a response but if they agree to expunge your misdemeanor, the benefits will be well worth the wait.

How to get a felony expunged

Not surprisingly, it is much harder to get a felony expunged from your record than a misdemeanor. This is largely because they are much more serious offenses.

The rules and requirements for felony expungement vary widely from state to state. Some general requires which all states will look for are:

  • Completing a waiting period. The length of this can vary significantly from state to state
  • Completing any jail sentence or probation period you were given and paying any fines that were given to you
  • Evidence that you do not have any subsequent criminal charges or convictions
  • Evidence that you are rehabilitated and are a functioning member of society. This can be shown through work, voluntary endeavors, education, and so on

In some states, it is not possible to get any felonies expunged at all. In other states, it is limited to certain types of offense. For example, if you have been found guilty of murder, a sexual crime, or a violent offense, the chances of being able to wipe this from your record is remote (but in some states not totally impossible).

If you think you are in a position to get a felony record expunged, the process for securing an expungement is similar to that of a misdemeanor. You must file a petition with the court that tried you and submit any information and evidence they require. You will then have to wait for the court to make a decision.

Expungements are less rare for felony offenses. But if you are successful, the offense will be wiped from your record and should no longer appear in any background check.

RELATED READING: How to run a national criminal background check online


The difference between a misdemeanor and a felony offense is a big one. It is rooted in the severity of the crime and the sentence handed down. But there are a number of grey areas which we have explained as clearly as we can in this article. Running a background check is the perfect way to see what offenses still show up on your record. We have identified the best two background checking sites to use and also explained how it is possible to expunge misdemeanor offenses and even some felonies too.

We have sought to outline everything you need to know in this article. Is there anything we have missed out? Have you used a background check to see if your past misdemeanor or felony still shows up? What did you do? Do you have any tips for our readers? We always welcome feedback and comments from our readers to help inform others, so why not share your own experiences with us using the comment box below?

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