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Misdemeanors vs Felonies – What’s the Difference?

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What Is The Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony?

Crimes in Washington are divided into two classifications: felonies and misdemeanors. Understanding the differences between the two can aid in knowing how to defend against many criminal offenses.

Do not plead guilty to a criminal charge until you have spoken with a criminal defense attorney who understands the legal system. You may be setting yourself up to take on unnecessary legal penalties, or may end up pleading guilty to more serious charges than you have to. Let’s explore the general differences between misdemeanors and felonies. Keep in mind, every case presents unique circumstances and considerations. Call our office if you would like legal advice particularly tailored to your specific case.


Misdemeanors are generally prosecuted in District and Municipal courts, such as the Clark County District Court or the Battle Ground Municipal Court. These are courts of limited jurisdiction, meaning that these courts do not have the power to handle felony cases (felonies are heard in Superior Court). Washington state divides misdemeanors into two categories: simple misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. DUI charges, for example, are gross misdemeanors.

The maximum penalty on a gross misdemeanor is 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. DUI’s in particular carry special consequences, such as licensing issues, court-ordered classes and treatment. For more information on DUI penalties, visit our DUI blog. Other examples of gross misdemeanors include Assault IV, Harassment, and Reckless Driving. Simple misdemeanors carry a maximum penalty of 90 days jail and a $1,000 fine. Examples of simple misdemeanors include Disorderly Conduct and Driving While Suspended in the Third Degree.

Misdemeanor criminal convictions in Washington State ordinarily carry two years probation, with DUI’s and Domestic Violence charges carrying a maximum of 5 years probation. During the time someone is on probation, they are generally required to obey all laws, commit no new charges, pay court costs, attend court-ordered classes, and abide by other special conditions imposed by the court. If a criminal defendant violates any of the terms of their probation, the judge has the power to impose additional punishment, including jail time, work crew, and community service, among other things.


Felony charges, on the other hand, can carry greater penalties than a misdemeanor. Felony charges can carry prison time if convicted. Additionally, a felony conviction will forfeit your right to lawfully possess a firearm until that right is restored by a court, and your right to vote will be lost until restored by a court. If you need assistance in restoring your right to possess a firearm, we can assist you in that process.

A Class C felony carries a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Some examples include most drug charges, Assault III, or felony DUI. One step further, a Class B felony carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Examples include drug dealing charges, Assault II, and others. A Class A felony such as Robbery 1st Degree carries a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $50,000 fine. Additionally, certain felony charges are considered “Strike” Offenses, where if a person is convicted of three Strike offenses throughout their life, they will be sentenced to life in prison.

Felony charges are unique in that they are sentenced according to the Washington State Sentencing Reform Act. A person’s sentence for a felony will generally be sentenced according to the range of penalties that a crime is classified for. This will be explained in the next paragraph. Additionally, a person’s prior criminal history at the time of sentencing is taken into account, because any prior criminal history could affect the standard range of their sentence. A “point” is generally considered a prior felony conviction, or in some cases, a prior Domestic Violence conviction or prior DUI conviction.

Let’s take a look at an example. If a person was convicted of Assault II and has no points (no prior qualifying convictions), their standard range of sentence would be 3-9 months of incarceration. However, if the person has a prior felony or other qualifying conviction, they would have 1 point on their record at the time of sentencing. With one point, the standard range of Assault II is 6-12 months of incarceration. With two points, the standard range is 12-14 months. Additionally, The Sentencing Reform Act imposes additional punishment if the charge was found committed with a deadly weapon, such as a firearm. Deadly weapon or firearm enhancements carry additional prison time if convicted.

In Sum

It is very important that you speak with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney before pleading guilty to any crime, because you may be unwittingly setting yourself up for harsher penalties than if you had a skilled defense advocate in your corner. Criminal defense lawyer Tom Carley has several years of experience defending against misdemeanor and felony charges in the Clark County courts. Our office understands the complexities of criminal charges. We understand how a seemingly straightforward case may present more consideration than meets the eye. Our office methodically examines each case to make sure that your rights are protected. Defending our clients is what we do best. Call our office for a free consultation to discuss your case. (360) 726-3571



Posted on by Thomas Carley
Misdemeanors vs Felonies – What’s the Difference?

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