In general, crimes are broadly divided into three separate categories:
- Misdemeanors: A misdemeanor is a criminal offense that is punishable by up to a year in a county jail facility and/or some amount of criminal fines (usually no greater than $1,000 maximum). For instance, petty larceny is an example of a misdemeanor crime, which involves the theft of property that is valued below a certain dollar amount.
- Felonies: On the other hand, a felony is a criminal offense that is punishable for one full year or longer in a state or federal prison facility and/or some amount of criminal fines (usually for $1,000 or more). An example of a felony offense would be armed robbery.
- Infractions and/or citations: An infraction or a citation is considered the least serious of these three categories of crimes. In most states, they are normally punished as a civil violation and thus will likely only result in monetary fines. For example, if you receive a parking ticket, then this would constitute an infraction or a violation of the traffic law.
What Is an Infraction?
An infraction, also known as a citation, is typically defined as a minor or petty offense that can result in monetary criminal fines. In most cases, a defendant who is accused of an infraction or who receives a citation for a minor offense will not usually be required to serve a jail sentence.
The reason for this is because infractions and citations are generally considered to be less serious types of criminal violations than charges for either a misdemeanor or a felony offense. Additionally, the majority of jurisdictions in the United States recognize violations of infraction laws as civil law violations and not as criminal offenses.
What Are Some Common Infractions?
As previously mentioned, whether an act is considered to be an infraction or not will largely depend on state and local laws. In general, some common examples that one may discover when reviewing infraction laws may include activities, such as the following:
- Parking citations;
- License or permit violations;
- Disturbing the peace;
- Building code violations;
- Minor traffic offense (e.g., speeding violation); and/or
- Fishing or hunting without a valid license.
Although many of the activities in the above list may appear to be similar to those found under the laws for petty offenses, the term does not always apply to infractions.
For instance, some states use the phrase “petty offense” to refer to some types of misdemeanor crimes instead. Generally speaking, misdemeanor crimes are usually viewed as more serious than infraction violations and therefore typically impose harsher punishments on convicted defendants.
Will I Be Tried as a Criminal If My Infraction Was Civil?
A person who receives a civil infraction will not be tried as a defendant in criminal court. This is because the process for a civil case is different from the one used in a criminal court. In a civil case, the party who has the burden of proof will only need to meet the preponderance of evidence standard in order to prove that they are guilty of committing a civil infraction.
In a criminal case, however, the prosecution will be required to prove that a defendant is guilty of committing the crime that they are accused of beyond a reasonable doubt.
What Does “Preponderance of Evidence” Mean?
The phrase “preponderance of evidence” generally refers to a type of legal standard that applies during the burden of proof analysis in a civil case. According to the rule required by the preponderance of evidence standard, the burden of proof will be met when the burdened party persuades the judge or jury that the claim in a civil case has a greater than fifty percent chance of being true.
This is in contrast to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” legal standard, which is used in criminal cases. It requires that the prosecution prove that there is virtually no other alternative than finding the defendant is guilty of the charges filed against them. It basically means that the prosecution has presented evidence that essentially proves the defendant is one hundred percent guilty of committing a crime.
In comparing the two legal standards, the preponderance of evidence standard is usually much easier to prove because it requires less certainty to render a ruling against the defendant in the case. Additionally, the party who has the burden of proof in a civil case (usually the plaintiff) will have a lower threshold to meet than the prosecution in a criminal case.
Is a Civil Infraction Punishable by Jail Time?
It is important to note that a person who receives a civil infraction in connection with a minor civil law violation cannot be sentenced to jail or prison time. Even persons who receive a criminal infraction for a minor criminal law violation will usually not be sentenced to jail or prison time.
However, if for some reason a person is sentenced to jail or prison time, then it must be because of a criminal infraction rather than a civil infraction. Additionally, an individual will normally only receive a jail or prison sentence for a criminal infraction if their charges were raised to that of a misdemeanor crime or a felony offense.
Can Infraction Become a Serious Charge?
It is possible for a violation of an infraction law to become a more serious offense, such as charges for a misdemeanor offense or a felony crime. This type of situation usually occurs when an individual fails to resolve their infraction issue. For example, a person may receive a parking ticket if they violate the traffic law. A minor traffic ticket by itself will only require that the person pay some amount of monetary fines.
On the other hand, a person who receives numerous parking tickets or who fails to pay for a traffic citation despite receiving notice, may need to pay extra fees in addition to the original amount of the parking ticket fine. In extreme cases, a judge may even order a person to serve a jail sentence if they continue to ignore their legal duty to pay the fines associated with a ticket.
Should I Discuss Infraction Laws with an Attorney?
If you have been arrested and charged in connection with violating any type of infraction law in your state, then it may be in your best interest to consult with a local criminal law attorney as soon as possible. A criminal law attorney who has experience in handling cases that involve violations of infraction laws in your county will already be familiar with the rules and procedural requirements in that area.
Your attorney will be able to assist you in clearing any of the charges filed against you if you think they are inaccurate, illegal, or that you have been subject to a false arrest. Your attorney can also help you to conduct legal research to build a strong defensive argument for your case as well as can aid you in completing and submitting the necessary legal forms in the proper court.
In addition, your attorney will be able to provide legal representation on your behalf if you are summoned to appear before a judge in a criminal proceeding or in traffic court. Lastly, if your infraction violation is elevated to the level of a misdemeanor or a felony offense, your attorney will be able to offer the appropriate types of legal services.