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Difference Between a Felony and a Misdemeanor

Virginia law recognizes three kinds of crime: criminal traffic offenses, misdemeanors, and felonies. Traffic offenses carry no criminal record, but felonies and misdemeanors do. What are the differences between these misdemeanors and felonies?

The differences between them are crucial for how the consequences will affect your life. Even the most minor of felonies will have ripple effects on your freedom and life worse than the worst misdemeanors.

The Federal Differences

Each state gets to decide which crimes fall into each category, but there is a federal standard. A misdemeanor is any crime punishable by fines and less than one year of incarceration. A felony is any crime punishable by fines and more than one year of incarceration.

However, states are free to use whatever classification they want for each kind of criminal charge. Most states divide up misdemeanors and felonies into several classes and tack on a particular punishment for each class.

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Loss of Civil Rights

Another difference between felonies and misdemeanors is the loss of civil rights. In Virginia, convicted felons lose the following rights:

  • Right to vote
  • Right to serve on a jury
  • Right to run for public office
  • Right to become a notary public
  • Right to own firearms

These are permanently lost unless you appeal to the governor of Virginia, and there is a process to restore your rights that you must follow.

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Virginia’s Definitions

Virginia defines a misdemeanor as an offense punishable by a fine not exceeding $2,500 or being jailed for a term not exceeding 12 months, or a combination of these. A felony is defined by a crime punishable by death or by confinement in a penitentiary.

There are four classes of misdemeanor and six classes of felonies under Virginia law. The  misdemeanors go from Class 1 to Class 4 (1 being the worst), and the felonies go from Class 1 to Class 6. Each class has a maximum jail sentence and a fine.


  • Class 4 Misdemeanor – Max fine of $250 (public intoxication)
  • Class 3 Misdemeanor – Max fine of $500 (unintentional property damage)
  • Class 2 Misdemeanor – Max fine of $1,000; six months in jail (first offense driving misdemeanors)
  • Class 1 Misdemeanor – Max fine of $2,500; 12 months in jail (DWI and shoplifting)


  • Class 6 Felony – Max fine of $2,500; one to five years in prison (many repeat offenses and upgraded Class 1 misdemeanors)
  • Class 5 Felony – Max fine of $2,500; one to 10 years in prison (involuntary manslaughter)
  • Class 4 Felony – Max fine of $100,000; two to 10 years in prison (arson)
  • Class 3 Felony – Max fine of $100,000; five to 20 years in prison (attacking with intent to maim or kill)
  • Class 2 Felony – Max fine of $100,000; 20 years to life in prison (violent burglaries)
  • Class 1 Felony – Max fine of $100,000; life in prison or the death penalty (premeditated murder, the only crime in this category in Virginia)


There are circumstances that modify these fines and jail times, and there are many of them. Legislators have enacted “penalty enhancements” for many crimes that modify the punishment or set minimum sentences. 

These are innumerable, but there are some broad classes. Any crime that involves using or possessing a deadly weapon will likely qualify, as well as drug crimes involving Schedule I or II drugs. The exact penalty depends on the underlying crime and the wording of the law.

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Felonies and Misdemeanors Are Both Serious Crimes

Just because felonies have more punishments than a misdemeanor doesn’t mean that misdemeanors should be ignored. A misdemeanor will still give you a criminal record that will follow you through life. Even in small cases, you should still seek the advice of a criminal defense attorney.

The sooner you can speak with a defense attorney, the better your chances of an outcome in your favor. Remember that you have rights, like the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent. You can use them, but please remember to be polite to the police when you do so. 

Once you’re free of interrogation, contact a criminal defense attorney immediately for further advice and do not speak about your case with anyone else.

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