What’s the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony?

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

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Misdemeanor and felony are two fundamental classifications in the realm of criminal law. Their implications significantly affect the gravity of the offense and the subsequent penalties. Knowing the differences between the two can help you understand what you’re up against and inform your next steps.

This blog post aims to shed light on these two classifications and their repercussions. By understanding the specifics, you’re not only better prepared for what lies ahead, but you’re also better equipped to collaborate with your legal representation for a strong defense.

Defining a Misdemeanor

Misdemeanors are generally considered less serious criminal offenses but shouldn’t be taken lightly. They span a broad range of crimes that involve breaches of public peace, harm to individuals or property, and certain offenses against the state. Examples include:

  1. Theft of Property: This crime involves unlawfully taking someone else’s property, but the value of the stolen items is typically low.
  2. Simple Assault: Non-aggravated assaults, or cases where a person threatens harm to another without a weapon, often fall under this category.
  3. Disorderly Conduct: Activities that disrupt the peace, such as fighting in public or creating a noisy disturbance, are considered disorderly conduct.
  4. Driving Under the Influence (DUI): Operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol or other mind-altering substances is most often a misdemeanor.
  5. Trespassing: This involves entering another person’s property without their consent. This can range from entering a private home to wandering onto a construction site.
  6. Public Intoxication: Being visibly drunk or under the influence of drugs in a public place can lead to a misdemeanor charge.
  7. Possession of Controlled Substances: Possession of small amounts of certain drugs can be classified as a misdemeanor, though this can vary widely based on the substance and the jurisdiction.

Despite their less severe categorization compared to felonies, misdemeanors should not be disregarded due to the potential legal repercussions. In some cases, these crimes might be considered either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on factors such as the extent of the damage or harm, the presence of aggravating factors, and the offender’s prior criminal history.

The Consequences of a Misdemeanor

The punishments for misdemeanors, while not as harsh as those for felonies, can still be significant and can adversely affect your life. The exact penalties vary depending on your location, the nature of the crime, and other specific circumstances. However, they generally include:

  • Incarceration: For a misdemeanor, the maximum jail time is 11 months and 29 days. Unlike felonies, where sentences are typically served in state or federal prisons, misdemeanor sentences are usually served in local or county jails.
  • Fines: Monetary fines for misdemeanors can range from small amounts to several thousand dollars, depending on the nature of the crime.
  • Community Service or Probation: Depending on the nature of the crime, the court may impose a sentence of community service or probation instead of or in addition to jail time and fines. Probation allows the person to serve their sentence outside of jail but requires them to meet specific terms and conditions set by the court.

A misdemeanor conviction can leave a mark on your criminal record. This may affect your future opportunities, including employment, housing, and loans. Hence, it’s important to take these charges seriously and seek adequate legal representation.

Understanding Felonies

Felony offenses are, in essence, the most severe crimes under our legal system. Their gravity is reflected in the harsh punishments they attract, including prolonged periods of imprisonment, hefty fines, or, in certain murder cases even capital punishment. Here are some examples of felonies:

  1. Aggravated Assault: This is an intentional act of causing serious physical harm to another person, often involving the use of a weapon. The severity and intent associated with this crime elevate it from simple assault to aggravated assault, making it a felony.
  2. Drug Trafficking: This involves the manufacturing, distribution, or possession with the intent to distribute illegal drugs. Drug trafficking is a serious offense and is always classified as a felony, with penalties varying based on the type of drug and the quantity involved.
  3. Fourth Offense DUI: While a first-time DUI is often classified as a misdemeanor, repeated offenses demonstrate a pattern of dangerous behavior. In Tennessee, a fourth DUI offense is automatically classified as a felony due to the repeated disregard for public safety.
  4. Vehicular Assault: This is a crime where a person causes serious bodily injury to another person while operating a vehicle recklessly or under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The seriousness of the harm caused often leads to this offense being classified as a felony.
  5. Forgery: This crime involves creating, altering, or using a false document with the intent to commit fraud. When the forgery involves substantial sums of money or significant documents—such as forging checks, legal contracts, or government documents—it is classified as a felony.
  6. Theft Over $1000: Theft becomes a felony—often referred to as grand theft or grand larceny—when the value of the stolen property exceeds a certain threshold. In many jurisdictions, this limit is set at $1000.
  7. Vandalism Over $1000: While minor instances of vandalism may be treated as misdemeanors, the crime becomes a felony when the damage exceeds a certain monetary value. This threshold varies, but in many places, causing property damage exceeding $1000 through acts of vandalism can result in felony charges.

The Consequences of a Felony

The repercussions of a felony conviction are often life-altering and far-reaching. They go beyond the immediate sentence and can influence many aspects of a person’s life.


  • Imprisonment: A person convicted of a felony usually faces a prison sentence of more than one year. For the most serious offenses, such as first-degree murder, the penalty can be life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
  • Fines: Felony convictions can lead to substantial financial penalties. These fines can reach up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the nature of the crime.
  • Loss of Rights: In the United States, convicted felons lose certain civil rights. These may include the right to vote, hold public office, serve on a jury, or possess a firearm. Some professional licenses may also be revoked or denied.
  • Long-term Implications: A felony conviction can severely damage your personal and professional reputation. It can affect your ability to find employment, secure housing, or qualify for certain forms of financial aid.


These are just a few examples of felonies, and the specific laws and classifications can vary widely by state. It’s crucial to have a knowledgeable attorney to guide you through the legal process if you’re facing felony charges.

The Importance of Legal Representation

Facing a criminal charge, whether a misdemeanor or a felony, brings with it a weighty set of consequences. Each case is as unique as the individuals involved, and the importance of adept legal representation cannot be overstated. Should you find yourself confronted with a misdemeanor or felony charge in East Tennessee, the attorneys at Barnes & Fersten are ready to help. Reach out to us today for a free consultation and let our team provide the robust, tailored defense you need.

Attorney At Law, Managing Partner

Brandon D. Fersten is an esteemed Knoxville attorney practicing DUIcriminal defense, and juvenile law. Known for his empathetic approach and commitment to his clients, he brings a record of favorable case outcomes including dismissals and not guilty verdicts at jury trials resulting in Brandon being recognized as one of the “Top 40 Under 40” in Criminal Defense, U.S. News’ Best Lawyers: “Ones to Watch,” and Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars”. Brandon’s professional accolades, combined with his passion for justice, position him as a reliable criminal defense advocate in the East Tennessee legal landscape.