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What is the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony in Virginia?

What is the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony in Virginia?

Misdemeanors and felonies are two primary classifications of crimes used by states. They differ from each other largely in the seriousness of the crimes under investigation and in the severity of the punishments issued to those convicted of the charges. In addition, some differences exist in the legal processes that determine the fate of those charged.

Here are the most notable distinctions between the two categories.

Types of crimes

In general, felony charges result from crimes that are deemed more serious than misdemeanors. Often, that means someone’s health or life was harmed or put at significant risk or a large amount of money was stolen or otherwise illegally gained. In contrast, the stakes tend to be lower in misdemeanor cases.

Examples of misdemeanor crimes include minor thefts, some categories of drug offenses (e.g., possession of marijuana), simple assault, disorderly conduct, vandalism, prostitution and some traffic offenses, such as driving on a suspended license, among others. Types of felonies include murder, rape, grand larceny, malicious wounding, fraud, arson, more serious drug charges (e.g., distribution of marijuana or other drugs such as cocaine or heroin) and burglary, among others.

Multiple tiers are used within the felony category to denote the gravity of a crime. For instance, a class one felony is considered the most serious category of crime and therefore also carries the most severe possible consequences, while a class six felony carries a less harsh sentence.  Similarly, misdemeanors are tiered from class one to class four.


Misdemeanor cases are tried before a judge in the General District or Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. This means that the prosecutor or police officer must present evidence to the judge to prove a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  However, if the judge finds a person guilty, the person has the right to appeal the decision to the Circuit Court and can even request a jury trial.

Felony cases also usually start in the General District or Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, however the procedure is different from misdemeanors.  In felony cases, the lower courts conduct a preliminary hearing to determine if there is probable cause to send the case to the Circuit Court for a trial.  After a finding of probable cause, the prosecution takes the case before a grand jury who return an indictment if they also find probable cause.

Once an indictment is returned in the Circuit Court a defendant may elect to be tried by a jury or, if the prosecution agrees, may have a judge try the case.  In either case, the prosecution must prove a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict a defendant.


Misdemeanor punishments are lighter than those for felonies, though that does not make them mere slaps on the wrist. Common misdemeanor sentences include fines, jail time, community service or probation – or some combination of them all. If the punishment does include jail time, the sentence length is one year or less and those convicted usually serve their sentence in a local or county jail rather than in a state prison. However, someone can be convicted on multiple misdemeanor charges at once, and the resulting sentences can be arranged successively so that the sentences essentially are strung together into one longer sentence.

Felony punishments feature larger fines than those issued in misdemeanor cases and longer prison sentences, ranging from one year to a life sentence – or even to the death penalty in extreme cases. Those convicted of a felony typically serve the bulk of their sentences in state prisons.

Felony convictions can carry additional consequences beyond the court sentence.  If you are convicted of a felony, you lose many important rights including the right to vote, to serve on a jury, to hold public office and the right to possess a firearm.  In addition, a felony conviction can often prevent a person from attending college, possessing a security clearance or working in certain careers

In Virginia, both felony and misdemeanor convictions remain on a person’s record for life.

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