What is the Difference Between a Petty Misdemeanor and a Misdemeanor?

Last Updated on May 11, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team

The U.S. legal and judicial systems use a lot of terminologies that can be difficult for laypeople to understand intuitively. 

The difference between a misdemeanor and a petty misdemeanor, according to U.S. law, is something that frequently causes confusion. 

However, it’s important to understand what these terms mean so that you can avoid potentially illegal situations and be informed in the event that you are ever involved in legal proceedings concerning a misdemeanor or a petty misdemeanor. 

Read on to find out the legal definition of a misdemeanor compared to a petty misdemeanor, in addition to what a gross misdemeanor entails.

What is the Difference Between a Petty Misdemeanor and a Misdemeanor

What is a Misdemeanor?

A misdemeanor is a class of offense that is less serious than a felony

In most cases, a misdemeanor is punishable by a penalty, forfeit, fines, house arrest, or a period of imprisonment carried out outside of a prison environment. 

Imprisonment for a misdemeanor cannot legally exceed 90 days. Fines for misdemeanors may not exceed $1,000. 

Misdemeanors are usually tried in municipal court, or sometimes in police court or a justice court. 

Examples of misdemeanors include disturbance of the peace, traffic violations, theft of low-value items, and certain instances of drug possession for personal use. 

Misdemeanors may not be as serious as felonies, but if you are charged with a misdemeanor, it will still stay on your criminal record for life and will show up on background checks conducted by potential employers unless you apply for expungement. 

Is a Petty Misdemeanor Bad?

In comparison to a misdemeanor, a petty misdemeanor is less serious. However, being charged with a petty misdemeanor is not a good thing. 

Petty misdemeanors are not actually classified as crimes under the law. Although legal statutes prohibit the commission of petty misdemeanors, these breaches are technically not considered to be criminal offenses. 

The maximum punishment for a petty misdemeanor is a fine not exceeding $300. You cannot be imprisoned for a petty misdemeanor, whether under house arrest or in a penitentiary. 

The offenses which can be classified as petty misdemeanors are mostly the same as those which can be classed as misdemeanors. The difference is that a petty misdemeanor usually indicates a less serious breach of theft, 

The theft of an item of such low value that imprisonment cannot be considered as an appropriate punishment, for example, may be classified as a petty misdemeanor.

Similarly, the possession of such an extremely small amount of an illicit substance for personal use may be classed as a petty misdemeanor. 

While driving significantly over the speed limit might get you a misdemeanor charge, speeding by a very small margin may only be a petty misdemeanor. 

Although you can’t be imprisoned for a petty misdemeanor, the breach will remain on your criminal record.

However, you can apply to have your criminal record expunged if you remain free of criminal charges for an uninterrupted period of two years following the charge. 

How Bad is a Gross Misdemeanor?

While a petty misdemeanor is less serious than a misdemeanor, a gross misdemeanor is more serious. 

Gross misdemeanors are punishable by a term of imprisonment not exceeding 365 days (one year) for $5,000 in fines. 

Examples of gross misdemeanors include gross lewdness (which comes under indecent exposure), some forms of theft, driving while intoxicated, or simple assault. 

Simple assault differs from aggravated assault in the sense that simple assault defines an unsuccessful attempt to inflict harm on another person.

Aggravated assault, on the other hand, constitutes a successful assault upon the person of another individual with the intent to seriously harm that individual. 

The presence of a deadly weapon during the assault will invariably warrant an aggravated assault charge.

Aggravated assault is a felony, while more serious forms of simple assault are classified as a gross misdemeanor (as opposed to a misdemeanor)

Gross misdemeanors are still considered to be minor crimes in comparison with more serious legal breaches such as felonies.

However, having a gross misdemeanor on your record can seriously impact your ability to find employment and your access to institutions or services that conduct criminal or background checks. 

With that being said, a gross misdemeanor, like petty misdemeanors and misdemeanors, can be expunged from your record after a certain period of time in the absence of any subsequent charges.

However, the period of time that must elapse following the charge before expungement can take place is longer than that for more minor misdemeanors. 

In order to have a gross misdemeanor expunged from your criminal record, you will need to remain free from any additional criminal charges for a period of four years. 

What is the Difference Between a Gross Misdemeanor and a Felony?

Even though a gross misdemeanor is still a serious offense, it is not as serious as a felony crime. 

While the maximum sentence for a gross misdemeanor is 365 days (a year), committing a felony can result in a period of imprisonment longer than a year. 

Exactly how long you can be imprisoned after committing a felony varies from State to State and, of course, depends on the felony committed. 

Felony charges cover a vast range of very serious crimes, including murder, sexual assault, abduction, arson, grand theft (including grand theft auto), robbery or armed robbery, and the selling of illegal drugs. 

Depending on the severity of the felony, expungement may be permitted. The length of time that you must remain without criminal charges to expunge a felony varies between States, but for the most serious felony offenses, applications for expungement are likely to be refused. 

Final Thoughts

A petty misdemeanor is similar to a misdemeanor in the sense that both are considered relatively minor offenses. However, while a misdemeanor is classed as a crime, a petty misdemeanor is not. 

Petty misdemeanor charges are usually filed for offenses of the same kind as those which warrant misdemeanor charges.

However, the offense will usually be less severe or be accompanied by mitigating circumstances where the breach is classed as a petty misdemeanor. 

Petty misdemeanors carry lesser penalties than misdemeanors. Conversely, a gross misdemeanor is a more serious class of misdemeanor offense and carries a higher penalty of up to a year’s imprisonment. 

Petty misdemeanors, misdemeanors, and gross misdemeanors are all less serious than felonies, although all will appear on your criminal record unless expungement is applied for.