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About Misdemeanor vs. Felony Charges

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Maryland criminal defense attorney Kush Arora.

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What are the main differences between misdemeanor and felony charges?

Kush Arora: Misdemeanor charges are typically seen as minor offenses. While they don’t always feel that way to a person who’s charged with them, a misdemeanor case is less serious in nature than a felony. Marijuana possession and driving under the influence are very common misdemeanors. Misdemeanor cases can involve a maximum penalty of 60 days to maybe a year in jail, something very low in the criminal spectrum, but not all misdemeanor cases have a penalty on the low end of the scale. An example would be a simple assault charge. A simple assault or an assault in the second-degree charge is considered a misdemeanor, but carries a maximum penalty of ten years in jail and up to a $2,500 fine. There are some felony charges that carry less jail time than that as a maximum penalty, so “misdemeanor” does not always mean “minor,” but these offenses are less serious than felony offenses. Felony offenses cover murder, rape, armed robbery; offenses against a person or that involve a large amount of money or a large amount of a drugs; offenses that would constitute a serious crime against society. These cases typically have jurisdiction in the circuit court of Maryland, which means that a person has a right to a jury trial immediately, versus misdemeanor cases, which usually have their jurisdiction in district court. Misdemeanor cases often have a right to a jury trial as well, but most people take the opportunity to have a bench trial with misdemeanor cases in the district court system, if that’s where the case is originally being heard.

How is it decided whether or not a case is prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony?

Kush Arora: This has a lot to do with different people at different stages. It starts with the police officer, in most cases, who makes the original arrest. Usually, the police officer makes a determination based on the evidence that he’s investigated and sees whether or not a case warrants a felony charge. If the case warrants a felony charge, he writes it up as a felony. At the next stage, the prosecutor decides whether the case will move forward as a felony or not a felony. If the prosecutor decides that they want to move the case forward as a felony, then the judge or the jury decide whether they’re going to convict as a felony or not. A different party makes this decision depending on what stage the case is in. A police officer, during their investigation, might also decide to charge a case as a misdemeanor because they believe that the evidence at that time does not demonstrate a felony charge. A prosecutor has the authority, during the course of the investigation, to change the charge; to file information or an amendment to the charging document and to change the charge to a felony offense. It all depends on the investigation; what stage it’s in, what a person is going to be charged with, how they will be prosecuted, and, ultimately, whether they’ll be convicted of what they’re charged with or not.

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