What we call criminal law broadly refers to federal and state laws that make certain behavior illegal and punishable by imprisonment and/or fines. Our legal system is largely comprised of two different types of cases: civil and criminal. Civil cases are disputes between people regarding the legal duties and responsibilities they owe each other. Criminal cases, meanwhile, are charges pursued by prosecutors for violations of criminal statutes.

Felonies and Misdemeanors

Criminal cases are generally categorized as felonies or misdemeanors based on their nature and the maximum imposable punishment. Each state is free to draft new criminal laws, so long as they are deemed constitutional. Thus, what is a crime in one state may not necessarily be a crime in a neighboring state.

A felony involves serious misconduct that is punishable by death or by imprisonment for more than one year. Most state criminal laws subdivide felonies into different classes with varying degrees of punishment. Crimes that do not amount to felonies are typically called misdemeanors. A misdemeanor is misconduct for which the law prescribes punishment of no more than one year in prison. Lesser offenses, such as traffic and parking tickets, are often called infractions.