How many times have you heard the term "felony" and "misdemeanor"? Have you ever wondered what these terms really mean? Here is a shorthand guide to what the terms mean and how they affect your legal rights.

A felony in most states, including Maine, is a crime that is potentially punishable by one year or more in jail. In Maine there are five classes of crime, Classes A, B, C, D and E. The Class A, B and C crimes are all considered "felonies" because if you are convicted of a Class A, B or C crime then you could stand to receive a sentence of jail in excess of one year. This is what makes a crime a felony - potential jail sentence of more than a year.

A felony is a crime that can range anywhere from the most serious - like murder — down to the decidedly less severe, such as operating a motor vehicle as an habitual offender. There is often no real rhyme or reason that separates a crime from being a felony or misdemeanor. Typically, though, the crimes that are classified as felonies are what we would all consider more serious crimes.

By contrast, misdemeanor crimes are the lesser crimes. Misdemeanor crimes are the Class D and E crimes and if you are convicted of a misdemeanor then the most that you could receive as far as jail time would be 364 days in jail.

Like with felonies, there is often no rhyme or reason to what makes a crime a misdemeanor as opposed to a felony. Your misdemeanor crimes are typically the crimes that are less serious. Misdemeanor crimes range from shoplifting to operating under the influence and all crimes of a lesser nature in between.

There is also a third class of "crimes" which are really not crimes at all - these are what are called civil violations. Civil violations involve the imposition of only a fine and do not carry with them the risk of any jail time. Possession of cigarettes by a minor is a classic civil infraction. If you are convicted of civil offenses the most that you stand to lose is a little bit of money in the way of a fine.

Other than jail time there are a number of practical differences between felonies and misdemeanors. If you are convicted of a felony you are not allowed to posses a firearm or ammunition. This is the case under both federal law and state law. Recently, though, federal law changed so that even if you are convicted of a certain kind of misdemeanor you can be prohibited from possessing a firearm or ammunition. Under this relatively new law, if one is convicted of a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" then that person cannot possess a firearm or ammunition. As such, under federal law now, if you posses a firearm after having been convicted of certain misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence (assault on a spouse, etc.) then you are never allowed to posses a firearm again.

Another practical effect of being convicted of a felony is that you will be under more scrutiny when applying for professional licenses. While I believe there are no professional licenses that are unattainable solely because someone has a felony conviction, the scrutiny goes up when it is reported that you have a felony conviction.

In some states, felons are not allowed to vote. In Maine that is not the case.

Because of the consequences of being labeled a felon, many people look into the pardon process. That is the subject of another column, but suffice to say it is very difficult to obtain a pardon of an old conviction, even if it is very old and involved limited conduct. The governor is the only one who can grant a pardon and the pardon applications are available through the governor's office.

A crime is a serious matter whether it is a felony or a misdemeanor. Especially when you are dealing with a felony, because of the serious consequences it is always advisable to speak with a lawyer before making any decisions about how to handle your case.

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