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About Misdemeanor vs. Felony Charges

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

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.