Q: I’m always hearing people talk about crimes saying things like second degree, misdemeanor, third degree, capital, first degree. What do all these things mean and what’s the difference?
A: To help answer your question, I enlisted my associate Michelle White, who formerly worked in the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office. People are often confused about the terms that are so often thrown around to describe criminal charges and Florida’s minimum mandatory sentencing and ‘scoring’ system and it’s easy to see why.
Crimes are separated into two separate groups, felonies and misdemeanors. Misdemeanors are those crimes punishable by imprisonment of one year or less, and include crimes like DUI, resisting arrest without violence, loitering and prowling, and disorderly intoxication.
Felonies are those crimes punishable by imprisonment of more than one year. They include rape, murder, robbery, kidnapping, drug trafficking, and some ‘white collar’ crimes.
Felonies and misdemeanors are then further broken down by degrees. The break down into degrees is used to differentiate the level of severity of a particular type of crime. Given that explanation, the analysis of the different level of crimes is easy.
At the top of the severity scale are capital crimes. Capital crimes are those select crimes viewed as the most heinous and the most severely punished. Capital crimes are punishable by death. That doesn’t mean that every person convicted of a capital offense will be sentenced to death. Life imprisonment is also a possible sentence, and the court will consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances to determine whether a convicted criminal should be put to death or not. The most common example of a capital crime is first degree murder.
Next on the scale are first degree felonies. They are punishable by imprisonment of not more than 30 years in most circumstance. However, because Florida has minimum mandatory sentencing for certain crimes committed while in possession of a firearm, some first degree felonies are punishable by life in prison. In either scenario, a person convicted of a first degree felony cannot be sentenced to more than life in prison (no three consecutive life sentences allowed) and cannot be sentenced to death. An example of a first degree felony is armed robbery.
Second degree felonies are next and consist of crimes punishable by no more than 15 years in prison. An example would be attempted sexual battery while armed. Keep in mind that this is a second degree felony because it was an attempt only. Had the attempt been successful, this crime becomes a capital felony and carries a much more serious penalty.
Third degree felonies follow. They carry a punishment term of five years or less. Common examples are assault, battery, theft, fraud and various drug possession charges.
Misdemeanors are only broken down into two groups, first and second. First degree misdemeanors are punishable by imprisonment of not more than one year and second degree misdemeanors are punishable by imprisonment of not more than 60 days. Examples of first degree misdemeanors include conspiracy to sell cannabis and trespass to land. An example of a second degree misdemeanor is petit theft.
Keep in mind that prior convictions of the same crime can increase a second degree to a first degree. For example, a person convicted twice before of petit theft, could be charged with a first degree misdemeanor and face sentencing of up to a year for a third conviction.
Though these sentencing guidelines may seem relatively straightforward, Florida has enacted certain minimum mandatory sentences for repeat and violent offenders, the implication of which is beyond the scope of this article. Even the innocent can need protection, to be sure prosecution does not take on a life of its own. Anyone arrested or charged with a crime should consult with an experienced attorney as soon as possible.
William G. Morris is an attorney with offices at 247 North Collier Boulevard on Marco Island, Florida. His practice covers a broad range of subjects, including civil litigation, real estate, business and corporate law, estate planning and probate, domestic relations and contracts. He writes this column periodically with respect to legal matters that frequently affect non-lawyers. The information contained in this column is not intended as legal advice and, of necessity, is generalized. For questions about specific circumstances, the reader should consult a qualified attorney.