An infraction is a somewhat broad term used to describe the breaking of the law. Most often, the term refers to a fairly minor law or local ordinance. As a legal term, it is generally only used in the United States, with most Common Law countries using different terms to describe similar offenses. An infraction is generally viewed as being less serious than a misdemeanor, and is often handled differently from other violations of the law.
Although technically a violation of statutory law, the way most infractions are treated makes them seem more akin to a civil offense. For example, an infraction does not receive the benefit of a jury trial, as a judge simply presides over the proceedings and passes judgment. Similarly, while a criminal case generally requires that proof be presented showing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, in many areas a person may be convicted of an infraction if a simple preponderance of evidence is shown.
In nearly all cases, being convicted of an infraction does not result in any loss of liberty. It is very uncommon for conviction to result in incarceration, although the United States Criminal (USC) code sets a maximum penalty of five days in prison. Further, a fine can be assessed, but cannot exceed $5,000 US Dollars (USD), and it is very rare for one to exceed even $1,000 USD. Occasionally, incarceration will be included as a penalty in cases where it is deemed necessary by a citing officer, such when someone cited for a public disturbance due to being intoxicated is placed in a holding cell until they become sober. In other cases, a minor suspension of liberty may be included, if it fits the crime, or is a repeated offense.
Some common infractions are petty offenses such as littering or jaywalking. These crimes can generally be cited by any administrative official, not just an officer of the law. Generally, no court hearing is even held, and an infraction is looked at as essentially a conviction, although it may still be contested in some cases, if the defendant insists. Other crimes which may be infractions in a jurisdiction are falsifying information and disturbing the peace.
Some jurisdictions have taken common misdemeanors and made them infractions to simplify citations and processing. For example, in Oregon possessing a small amount of marijuana is viewed as an infraction, rather than a misdemeanor crime, making it much easier to handle the large number of people convicted of this crime. Similarly, in a number of traffic corridors in the United States, where excessive speeding is a frequent problem, speeding is viewed as an infraction rather than a misdemeanor.
At the discretion of a judge, many regions allow certain classes of misdemeanor to be reduced to this level, so that a conviction does not impact the defendant’s criminal record as drastically. This is especially true in first time offenses for crimes such as petty theft, disturbing the peace, possession of marijuana, and trespassing. In these cases a lenient judge will often find a defendant guilty, but reduce the crime, at the same time giving a stern warning that further violations of the law will be punished as full misdemeanors.