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In common law systems, misdemeanor crimes are a class of legal infractions that are more serious than civil offenses, but less serious than felonies. Most common law jurisdictions which recognized misdemeanor and felony classifications in the past have abolished these distinctions; such as Australia, Canada, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. The United States is the only country which still uses the misdemeanor designation.
The description and penalties for misdemeanor crimes vary depending upon whether or not the offense is committed under federal or state jurisdiction. In addition, the statutes of each individual state describe the nature and penalties of misdemeanor crimes in their region. In most areas, however, misdemeanor crimes are punishable by a loss of privileges, community service, fines and/or imprisonment of up to one year in a city or county facility.
Misdemeanor crimes are lesser offenses than felonies, yet the penalties can be very damaging, depending upon the nature of the charge. For example, a person who has been convicted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol will not only lose his driving privileges for a period of time, but he may also be banned from certain jobs, such as driving a school bus or taxi cab. If the crime is sexual in nature, he may be required to register as a sex offender and be limited not only in employment options but in housing choices.
People charged with misdemeanor crimes are not always afforded the same legal protections granted to people who are charged with felonies. Some charges are processed in an alternate court, such as traffic court, and the punishments may be determined by a set schedule. If the charge is a minor traffic offense the accused may not be allowed a jury trial, or may be required to pay a fee if he requests a jury. In addition, the jury in a misdemeanor trial usually has six members rather than twelve. If the possible penalties do not include jail time, the defendant may also be denied the right to have an attorney.
A person convicted of misdemeanor crimes may face additional hurdles if he wishes to enlist in a branch of the military. In every case, a waiver must be obtained before he is accepted. Most branches allow the local commander of the recruiting area to grant the waiver for a limited number of specified offenses. In other cases, the waiver must come from someone higher in the chain of command.
Many states also have a provision which allows a person to have some misdemeanor convictions expunged, or erased, from their record. Most states which have this legal provision limit the application to only certain misdemeanor crimes and require that all fines, community service, restitution and other court ordered consequences be completed. The applicant is generally required to have gone a certain period of time without any more charges or infractions of the law as well. Having a conviction erased from a person’s record is very helpful, and anyone in this situation might benefit by becoming familiar with the laws in his jurisdiction to see if this option is available.
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