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Offenses with which criminal law is concerned fall into several different classifications, of which the following seem to be the most descriptive in terms of substance and procedure: felonies and misdemeanors, both of which are crimes and leave a person convicted of them with a criminal record; and violations, which are not crimes although they are punishable offenses.

Felonies are generally described as offenses that are punishable by death or by imprisonment in a state or federal prison. You will sometimes see these felonies referred to as capital crimes or infamous crimes. These terms have little or no legal significance today. All other crimes, which carry less severe penalties, are misdemeanors.

Violations are punished less severely than crimes. The distinction between felonies and misdemeanors, on the one hand, and violations, on the other, is really the difference in the severity of punishment which is provided for the crime or offense in the law defining the crime. Typical felonies are ones we often read about: murder, rape, larceny, arson, burglary and treason.

Another important difference between felonies and misdemeanors and all other lower offenses lies in your right to trial by jury: if you are suspected of having committed a felony or a more serious misdemeanor, you are brought before a grand jury, indicted (if the grand jury believes you may be guilty), arraigned, given a chance to plead in any one of several ways ("guilty" and "not guilty" are the most common pleas), and offered a jury trial. But if your offense is relatively minor, a less serious misdemeanor or a violation, you are arraigned or brought into court at the motion of the local prosecuting attorney and given a chance to plead; you may or may not have the opportunity to be tried by a jury.

Misdemeanors are offenses which, because they are regarded as less dangerous to society, less evil in themselves, carry a lighter penalty than felonies. Society, therefore, throws fewer protections around those accused of misdemeanors and violations. You are guilty of committing a battery if, unprovoked, you start a fist-fight with your neighbor and punch him in the nose. If he calls the police and you are summoned to appear before the local magistrate the next morning, you will not be offered a jury trial.

When you leave your car an hour too long in a restricted parking area, you have violated a local parking ordinance, but the worst that can happen is that the policeman or meter maid will issue you a summons directing you to pay the appropriate fine by mail or in person by a stated date. In the case of your fist-fight with your neighbor, your summons orders you to appear in court on a certain date at a certain time, "to answer the charges against you". You ignore such a summons at your peril: the judge may fine you for contempt of court.


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