What Is a Petty Misdemeanor?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Misdemeanors are a class of law violations that are often thought to be much less severe in scope than crimes called felonies. These violations may be further separated into what are called gross and petty misdemeanors. Gross misdemeanors usually are more serious infractions that might result in a person serving some time in jail. In contrast, a petty misdemeanor is typically an extremely small infraction that is punishable by fines only; in fact, some people call these non-criminal offenses. They may or may not create a criminal record.

Minor traffic violations are often petty misdemeanors.
Minor traffic violations are often petty misdemeanors.

Exactly what constitutes this type of misdemeanor is variable by region. Some potential infractions could include traffic tickets that do not involve driving under the influence of substances. Citations for behavior that a city or other region disallows like smoking in a designated non-smoking area or violating a city noise ordinance could fall under this category too.

Shoplifting is usually considered a petty misdemeanor.
Shoplifting is usually considered a petty misdemeanor.

One thing that may distinguish the petty misdemeanor from other forms of crimes is that these infractions usually have relatively low fines attached to them. Fines paid could be anywhere from a few dollars to several hundred dollars. In places like the US, the top fine for this type of misdemeanor is typically about $300 US Dollars (USD).

Smoking in a designated non-smoking area may be a petty misdemeanor in some places.
Smoking in a designated non-smoking area may be a petty misdemeanor in some places.

Another differentiation between the gross and petty misdemeanors is that many petty infractions don’t require attendance in court. Unless a person wants to challenge the citation, they ordinarily simply pay the fine and walk away from the problem. Most people find this more convenient than fighting a charge because these charges are unlikely to go on a criminal record, though traffic violations might be maintained for a short time on motor vehicle and driving records.

There can be one instance where a petty misdemeanor can create huge issues and that is if people cannot pay the fine. When this is due to financial hardship, it could be possible to negotiate directly with the court and create a payment plan. This may require a court appearance, or it might be something negotiable over the phone with the specific court involved. Ignoring the fine is never a good option and could ultimately upgrade the misdemeanor charge to something else.

This classification of non-criminal offense is designed to encourage good behavior on a number of levels. Many people see a petty misdemeanor charge as a slap on the hand, reminding folks to obey even the minor laws of a region. Though these are less serious infractions, they do deserve serious attention. Frequent small misdemeanor charges suggest a person is out of step with regional attitudes about safe or legal behavior, and accumulation of these charges may additionally become expensive.

A person who violates a city noise ordinance may be charged with a petty misdemeanor by police.
A person who violates a city noise ordinance may be charged with a petty misdemeanor by police.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

David09

Just because a petty misdemeanor does not show up in a criminal record does not mean it may not haunt you if you switch jobs. The reason is that employers conduct background checks, and my understanding is that they can go really deep into a background check.

Thus, a background check could reveal your misdemeanor if the employer wanted to be really thorough. A superficial background check will not show it however. All misdemeanors are not the same in an employer's eyes too. He will view a petty theft with far more seriousness than a traffic ticket.

truman12

Its interesting to think about how the law makes distinctions between serious crimes and less serious crimes and how these can vary across regions. You might do something wrong in one state and get charged with a petty misdemeanor and then do the same thing in a different state and get a much harsher penalty. The law is subjective and this becomes really clear when you look about how certain areas react to certain kinds of misbehavior. You might get a $20 fine or a month in a jail cell.

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