What is the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony?

Understand how Tennessee law categorizes criminal offenses
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Basic differences between misdemeanors  felonies

In Tennessee, the distinction between misdemeanors and felonies is based on the severity of the offense. Misdemeanors are less serious crimes than felonies; so, the penalties for misdemeanors are less severe.

Misdemeanor Felony
Fines, probation, community service, up to one year in jail Longer prison sentences, substantial fines, probation
Often resolved in General Sessions Court. If no resolution, the case may go to criminal court (through the process of preliminary hearing and grand jury.) Not resolved in General Sessions Court unless there is a plea to a lesser offense.  Felonies are resolved in circuit or criminal court, sometimes with a jury trial.
Examples: Simple assault, shoplifting, public intoxication Examples: Burglary, aggravated assault, drug trafficking

The classification of a crime as a misdemeanor or a felony can depend on certain facts.

The amount of harm caused, the “type” of victim (such as a minor), the conditions under which the offense was committed, and whether a weapon was used are factors that may “aggravate” certain offenses, changing them from misdemeanor to felony offense. For example:

  • Theft under $1,000 is a misdemeanor, but theft over $1,000 is a felony.
  • “Simple” assault that causes bodily injury is a class A misdemeanor, but if the bodily injury is deemed to be “serious,” then it is aggravated assault, which is a felony.

Similarly, an assault that involves the use or display or a weapon is aggravated assault, a felony.

Possible punishment for misdemeanors

There are three classes of misdemeanors (A, B, and C) and there are five classes of felonies (A though E). Class A is the most serious in each category.

The punishment depends on many factors, but generally, the punishments for each class of misdemeanor are in these ranges:

  • Class A misdemeanors carry a possible sentence of up to 11 months 29 days in jail and fine of up to $2,500. (However, some offenses have additional special fines.)
  • Class B misdemeanors are punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $500.00
  • Class C misdemeanors are the least serious, and carry a possible sentence of up to 30 days in jail and a $50 fine.

Common misdemeanors in Tennessee

Examples of class A misdemeanors

  • Simple Assault: Intentionally causing someone to fear immediate bodily injury or actually causing bodily injury.
  • Theft under $1,000: Stealing property valued below a specified amount.
  • Vandalism under $1,000: Willfully damaging or destroying someone else’s property.
  • Simple Drug Possession: Possessing a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use.
  • Driving Under the Influence (DUI): Operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs. Note that a fourth offense DUI is a felony.
  • Evading Arrest: Running away (on foot) with knowledge that the police are attempting to detain or arrest you.

Examples of class B misdemeanors

  • Reckless Driving: Operating a vehicle with disregard for the safety of others.
  • Assault by Offensive or Provocative Contact: Contact with another person that is offensive but does not cause bodily harm (such as pushing or spitting).

Examples of class C misdemeanors

  • Trespassing: Entering or remaining on someone else’s property without permission.
  • Disorderly Conduct: Engaging in unruly, disruptive, or offensive behavior in public.

Possible punishment for felony offenses in Tennessee

Sentencing for felony offenses depends on a variety of factors, including facts about the offense that can “enhance” (increase) the penalties. Furthermore, some offenses (drug crimes, for example) come with higher fines than what is listed below. The usual range of punishment for felonies is the following:

  • Class A felony:  15 to 60 year sentence and up to $50,000 fine
  • Class B felony:  8 to 30 year sentence and up to $25,000 fine
  • Class C felony:  3 to 15 year sentence and up to $10,000 fine
  • Class D felony:  2 to 12 year sentence and up to $5,000 fine
  • Class E felony:  1 to 6 year sentence and up to $3,000 fine

Examples of felonies in Tennessee

Some typical Tennessee felony offenses:

  • Burglary: Unlawfully entering a building with the intent to commit a crime, often theft or assault.
  • Aggravated Assault: Causing serious bodily harm or using a deadly weapon during an assault.
  • Robbery: Taking someone’s property through force, threat, or intimidation.
  • Possession of Controlled Substances with Intent to Sell: Possessing drugs in a quantity that indicates that the purpose is to sell them.
  • Arson: Intentionally setting fire to a building, structure, or property.
  • Felony DUI: Repeated instances (4 or more) of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Felon in Possession of a Firearm: It is unlawful and a felony offense for an individual who has already been convicted of felony to be in possession of a firearm.
  • Evading Arrest in a Motor Vehicle: Fleeing from police in a vehicle with knowledge that police are attempting to make a stop or arrest.

What to do if you are charged with a misdemeanor or felony

Never speak with the police without a lawyer. Tell the police only that you want a lawyer.  Legal representation ensures that your rights are protected.  

Your Davidson County Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help

When you or a loved one are charged with a felony or misdemeanor, you need a tough but caring criminal defense attorney on your side.  Carla Grebert will take the time to listen, understand and explain the legal process, then provide a strong defense to make sure that the district attorney does not take advantage of you or your situation. Request a consultation today.

Misdemeanor and Felony Court Process

Misdemeanors and felonies take different paths through the court system.  Davidson County criminal defense attorney Carla Grebert has prepared a handy one-page overview, “Your Criminal Case in General Sessions Court in Tennessee,” to help you understand the process.  Click here to get it.


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