Misdemeanour: Legal Definition, Classification, Severity and Expungement

What is a Misdemeanour?

A misdemeanour is a criminal offence less severe than a felony but more serious than an infraction, often punishable by a fine, probation, or a short jail term.

Misdemeanour Legal Definition: A Comprehensive Guide

In the vast landscape of the legal system, this offence often pops up, especially in the context of criminal law.

The exact definition and consequences can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but are generally viewed as lesser criminal acts.

But what exactly does it mean? How does it differ from other legal terms, and why is it important to understand?

Legal Meaning of Misdemeanour

A misdemeanour is a type of criminal offence considered less severe than a felony but more serious than an infraction.

They are punishable by a fine, probation, community service, restitution, or a jail term of less than one year.


They can be further classified into different categories based on their severity:

  • Petty or Simple Misdemeanours: These are the least severe types of misdemeanours. Examples might include minor traffic violations, trespassing, or first-time shoplifting.
  • Gross or Aggravated Misdemeanours: These are more serious and have stiffer penalties. Examples could include assault without the intent to kill, certain drug offences, or repeated DUIs.

Misdemeanours vs Felonies

The primary distinction between a misdemeanour and a felony is the severity of the crime and the potential punishment.

Felonies are more severe criminal offences, like murder, rape, or grand theft, and they can result in a prison sentence of more than one year, hefty fines, or even the death penalty in some jurisdictions.

Can A Misdemeanour Be Upgraded To A Felony?

The decision to elevate a charge typically depends on the specifics of the crime, the defendant’s prior criminal history, and the presence of aggravating factors.

For instance, a DUI charge, which might initially be classified as a misdemeanour, could be escalated to a felony if the driver caused significant injury or death.

Similarly, repeated misdemeanour offences might lead to a felony charge for subsequent violations.

The consequences of a felony are more severe, including longer prison sentences, heftier fines, and more lasting impacts on one’s criminal record.

Differences between an infraction, misdemeanour, and felony

InfractionLeast severeTypically, fines or citationsTraffic violations (e.g., speeding), littering
MisdemeanourModerateFines, probation, and/or jail timePetty theft, simple assault, driving under the influence (DUI)
FelonyMost severeSubstantial prison time or finesMurder, rape, grand theft, drug trafficking
Infraction vs Misdemeanor vs Felony

The Legal Process

When an individual is charged:

  1. Arrest: The process typically begins with an arrest. However, a citation or notice to appear in court might be issued instead for minor misdemeanours.
  1. Arraignment: The accused is then arraigned, informed of the charges against them and asked to enter a plea.
  1. Trial: The case goes to trial if a plea deal isn’t reached. Misdemeanor trials are usually quicker than felony trials.
  1. Sentencing: If found guilty, the individual is sentenced. Depending on the misdemeanour’s severity, this could range from fines to jail time.


While they are less severe than felonies, a conviction can still have significant implications:

  • Criminal Record: The crime will appear on one’s criminal record, affecting employment opportunities, housing applications, and more.
  • Loss of Rights: Some rights, like voting or owning a firearm, might be restricted or revoked.
  • Financial Implications: Fines, court costs, and restitution can lead to financial strain.
  • Reputation: A conviction can tarnish one’s personal and professional reputation.

Expungement of Misdemeanours

In some jurisdictions, individuals can apply for a misdemeanour to be expunged or sealed from their record.

This means the offence is effectively “erased” for most purposes, though it might still be accessible to certain government agencies. The eligibility criteria and process for expungement vary.

Can I Be Denied A Loan Or Credit Based On A Misdemeanour?

A misdemeanour conviction can impact your ability to secure a loan or credit, though it is not a direct factor like income or credit score. Lenders and credit institutions primarily assess an applicant’s financial reliability. However, they might also consider criminal background checks, especially for larger loans or specific purposes like housing.

A misdemeanour on your record could raise concerns about your overall stability or reliability. For instance, if it is related to financial fraud or dishonesty, it might be viewed more critically than others.

Additionally, the consequences, such as fines or community service, could affect your financial situation, indirectly influencing a lender’s decision.

Maintaining a good credit score, stable employment, and consistent income is essential to counterbalance any potential negative perceptions.

Do Landlords Typically Check For Misdemeanour Convictions During Rental Applications?

Some landlords conduct criminal background checks on potential tenants as part of the rental application process. Certain misdemeanours, such as those related to property damage, violence, or drug offences, might raise concerns for landlords.

Due to building insurance policies, landlords may need to ensure the safety and security of their property, and a criminal background check provides insight into an applicant’s history.

It is worth noting that housing laws vary by region. In some places, landlords may be restricted from denying housing based solely on criminal records without considering the conviction’s nature, timing, and relevance.

How Does A Misdemeanour Affect College Applications or Scholarships?

Many colleges and universities ask applicants about their criminal history, and a misdemeanour might raise concerns about the applicant’s character or judgment.

Scholarships, particularly those based on merit or character, might have specific eligibility criteria that exclude applicants with criminal records.

However, not all institutions or scholarship committees view misdemeanours as automatic disqualifiers. Some may offer applicants an opportunity to explain the circumstances surrounding the offence.

Applicants must be honest and forthcoming about their past, providing context and emphasising personal growth or lessons learned.

Additionally, some jurisdictions have laws limiting inquiries about criminal records in college admissions, promoting a fair chance for all applicants.

The Importance of Legal Representation

If charged with this offence, it is crucial to seek legal representation. A knowledgeable attorney can guide the accused through the legal process, negotiate plea deals, and work to minimise the consequences of a conviction.


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