Types of Criminal Cases

It can sometimes be hard to tell what is a “crime,” and what is not. Doing something that is against the law is called an “offense,” and may be punishable by the state or another authority. Punishments for offenses include fines or even imprisonment. However, not every offense is considered a crime – even if someone goes to jail.

In New York, there are four types of offenses. Two are considered criminal, and two are non-criminal.

Non-Criminal Offenses

1. Traffic Infractions (cite: VTL sec. 155)

Many violations of New York’s Vehicle and Traffic Law are considered traffic infractions (although certain violations may be misdemeanors or felonies). The punishment for traffic violations is not considered a criminal punishment.

Examples of common traffic infractions include:

  • Not keeping your driver’s license or car’s registration up to date
  • Speeding (but not reckless driving, which is a criminal offense)
  • Unlawfully parking in a handicapped space
  • Not yielding to a pedestrian in a crosswalk
  • Riding a motorcycle without a helmet

2. Violations

A violation is any non-criminal offense, other than traffic infractions. The most someone can be punished for a violation is 15 days in jail and/or a $250 fine.

Examples of common violations include:

  • Disorderly conduct
  • Trespassing

Remember that non-criminal offenses can still be punishable by arrest, fines and/or jail time. However, non-criminal offenses like traffic infractions and violations do not create a criminal record and do not have to be reported on most applications, such as applying for school or a background check for a job. To read more about criminal records, click here.

Criminal Offenses

1. Misdemeanors

A misdemeanor is the lowest level of crime. It is more serious than a violation, but less serious than a felony. Misdemeanors are divided into 3 groups:

Class A
This is the most serious type of misdemeanor. The most someone can be punished for a Class A misdemeanor is up to 1 year in jail.

Class B
The most someone can be punished for a Class B misdemeanor is 3 months in jail.

The punishment for most Unclassified misdemeanors is 3 years of probation. However, someone can be punished for a Driving While Intoxicated Unclassified misdemeanor for up to 1 year in jail. To learn more about punishments for offenses, see Sentencing.

The most someone can be punished for a Class A misdemeanor is 1 year in jail. The most someone can be punished for a Class B misdemeanor is 3 months in jail. The punishment for most Unclassified misdemeanors is 3 years of probation, although someone can be punished for a DWI Unclassified misdemeanor up to one year in jail. See Sentencing to learn more about punishments.

2. Felonies

Felonies are the most serious types of crimes. Examples of felonies include:

  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Robbery
  • Arson
  • Selling or possessing controlled substances

If someone is found guilty of a felony, he or she may be sent to prison for at least 1 year, or as long as life imprisonment. It is also possible to be sent to jail for less than 1 year, or to receive a punishment that does not involve any jail time at all, such as probation or a discharge.

Like misdemeanors, felonies are divided into different groups, or “classes,” based on how serious the crime is.

The classes of felonies are:
Class Longest Possible Jail Time
A-I or A-II. Life in prison*
B 25 years
C 15 years
D 7 years
E 4 years
*It is not possible to be sentenced to life in prison on certain drug felonies, even if they are classed as A-I or A-II.

There is something else that can also change the possible punishment for a felony: whether the felony is considered “violent” or “non-violent.”

Difference Between Violent and Non-Violent Felonies

The law considers some felonies as “violent” and other felonies as “non-violent.” The New York State Penal Law defines whether or not a felony is considered “violent.” It is not decided by what may have happened in a particular criminal case. Even if that particular case involves violence, that felony may not be considered violent under the Penal Law. For example, the law states that Robbery in the 2nd Degree is a violent felony, while Robbery in the Third Degree is a non-violent felony.

Certain felonies in class B, C, D and E may be considered violent felonies. For example, it is possible to be charged with a class E violent felony, and a class B non-violent felony.

Punishments for violent felonies are for a fixed, or “determinate,” amount of time. Punishments for non-violent felonies are usually for a range of time, if it is a person’s first felony conviction. After serving the minimum sentence, a person becomes eligible for post-release supervision. For more information, see Common Sentences.

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