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Thursday, December 2, 2021

Felonies, Misdemeanors and Minor Offenses: What's the Difference?

All crimes are not created equal. Just as the Kentucky criminal justice system carries different penalties for different crimes, it also classifies those offenses into different categories. Someone who is caught speeding will not be subject to the same punishment as someone who is caught speeding while impaired. 

Likewise, someone charged with simple possession of marijuana will not face the same penalties as someone charged with simple possession of heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine. Below is a summary of the different Classes of crimes in Kentucky.


Minor offenses (also called infractions, petty offenses, or violations) are the lowest class of offenses and the most common. These include, but are not limited to, traffic tickets and violations of local ordinances (e.g., dog not on a leash or loud music). Generally, these are only punished by small fines and cannot result in jail time.

Infractions do not carry a right to a jury trial, because there is no possibility of jail time. However, this also means that someone who is charged with an infraction is not entitled to a public defender. If a defendant wants to challenge an infraction they may do so, but the hearing will generally only involve the defendant, prosecutor, and judge.

Most infractions are payable citations, which allow a defendant to pay the ticket and avoid court. Importantly, this does not mean this is always the best way to resolve the case because paying a ticket is an admission of guilt. Many defendants will pay a traffic ticket without realizing the number of points added to their driving record, which could affect their job, insurance, and/or driver’s license. For this reason, it is always best to at least consult an attorney before paying a ticket.


Under federal law and in many states, including Kentucky, a misdemeanor is a crime that carries a maximum possible sentence of less than a year in jail. In the eyes of the law, misdemeanors are crimes that involve conduct that is less serious than felonies, but more serious than minor offenses.

Common misdemeanors in Kentucky include:
  • DUI
  • Fourth Degree Assault
  • Possession of a non-narcotic controlled substance, 1st offense
  • Petty Theft
The most common classes of misdemeanors in Kentucky are:

Class A misdemeanors, which carry a maximum term of imprisonment of twelve (12) months and up to a $500 fine. Examples include:
  • Theft By Unlawful Taking Under $1000 (e.g., shoplifting)
  • Sexual misconduct
  • Cultivation of less than five marijuana plants
  • Disorderly Conduct, 1st Degree
Class B misdemeanors, which carry a maximum term of ninety (90) days imprisonment and up to a $250 fine. Examples include:
  • Public intoxication
  • Resisting arrest
  • Prostitution
  • Disorderly Conduct, 2nd Degree
Unlike an infraction, misdemeanor charges do carry a right to a jury trial. Thus, it is even more important for a person facing misdemeanor charges to seek out legal assistance. Not only will a defense lawyer be able to help a defendant navigate the court system, but they will be able to analyze possible defenses that may result in less jail time and/or fines, or even no conviction at all.

Common defenses against misdemeanor charges include:
  • Lack of evidence
  • Duress
  • Self-Defense

Although the penalties for misdemeanors are less severe than those for felonies, a misdemeanor conviction stays on a defendant's record indefinitely. Thus, it is important to combat misdemeanor charges while they are still pending. However, if a person is convicted of a misdemeanor, they can still seek to have it expunged from their record if they meet certain criteria. A criminal defense attorney can help you determine whether you are eligible for expungement.


Felonies include some of the most infamous types of crimes, but statistically, are less common. In Kentucky, a felony is any crime punishable by imprisonment of more than a year. As such, the degree of severity of a felony varies greatly depending on the class of felony charged. 

In Kentucky, the different classes of felonies include:
  • Capital Offenses, (e.g., murder and kidnapping that results in death) punishable by:
  • Death
  • Life without parole
  • 25 years to life in prison, or 20 to 50 years’ imprisonment
Class A Felonies, (e.g., murder, rape depending on how charged) punishable by:
  • 20 to 50 years in prison, or
  • Life imprisonment
  • Class B Felonies, (e.g., first-degree manslaughter, first degree assault, serious sex crimes) punishable by:
  • 10 to 20 years imprisonment
Class C Felonies, (e.g., theft over $10,000, second-degree assault, drug trafficking over a certain amount) punishable by:

  • 5 to 10 years imprisonment

Class D Felonies, (possession of a controlled substance, first-degree wanton endangerment, theft over $1,000, DUI 4th offense within 10 years) punishable by:

  • 1 to 5 years imprisonment

Fines may also be imposed. Depending on the class of felony, a defendant may be sentenced to pay a fine of between $1,000 and $10,000 or double any gain from committing the offense, whichever is greater.

In addition to imprisonment, some felonies can be punished by ordering the defendant to pay restitution for their crimes. Restitution might include the amount of monetary damage to property, or the amount needed to cover a victim's medical bills. These types of felonies generally include crimes against property or crimes against the person but can also include other types.

Many other felonies are simply misdemeanors with aggravating circumstances (e.g., aggravated assault, crimes against children or members of law enforcement). Generally, the more serious the harm of the offense, the more likely it is to be charged as a felony.

It is critically important that anyone facing felony charges seeks out representation. If a criminal defendant cannot afford representation in a felony case, one will be assigned for them. Unlike misdemeanors, many felony convictions cannot be expunged, so the only time to fight the charges is before conviction. The same defenses that can be employed in a misdemeanor trial can also be utilized in a felony trial. A skilled attorney will be able to help employ the defenses to have charges either lessened or dropped against a defendant.


In most states, for all but the most serious crimes, the state must begin criminal prosecution within a certain time from when the crime was committed or uncovered. This is called the statute of limitations. In Kentucky, misdemeanors have a one (1) year statute of limitations. However, for felonies, Kentucky is an outlier because it has no statute of limitations for felony crimes.

If you or someone you know are charged with a crime, contact Josh McIntosh Law immediately.

Author Credit: This article was authored by Samuel Banasek, a law student at Salmon P. Chase Law School and law clerk for Josh McIntosh Law, with guidance from Josh McIntosh.

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