One of the most common questions that a criminal defense attorney is asked by their client is whether their charges are felonies or misdemeanors. There are several important distinctions between the two. Generally speaking, felonies are far more serious then misdemeanor cases. If a person is charged with a felony, such as aggravated assault, possession of dangerous
drugs or unlawful flight, they may be facing the possibility of prison time and dealing with the difficulties that a felony conviction on one's record can create.
Misdemeanors are less serious offenses. The most common misdemeanors are DUI and most
domestic violence offenses. Misdemeanors can be filed in the Superior Court, but in most cases, they are filed either in the municipal Court or the justice court, depending on where the offense allegedly occurred. There are three levels of misdemeanors under Arizona law. The most serious of which is the class one misdemeanor. All misdemeanor DUI offenses are designated as class one offenses. The maximum penalty for any class one misdemeanor is up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $2500 plus surcharges, and up to three years of probation (five years for DUI cases). With the exception of some domestic violence cases, most misdemeanor convictions do not affect whether a person can legally possess a firearm. Misdemeanor convictions likewise do not affect one's ability to vote or served on a jury. Generally speaking, disclosing a misdemeanor conviction on a job application will be less detrimental than having a felony conviction on one's record.
Felony offenses, on the other hand, are usually problematic for individuals trying to obtain employment, security clearance or enroll in an educational institution. A person convicted of any felony in Arizona is legally prohibited from possessing a firearm, serving on a jury or voting. Felony offenses are classified one through six. Depending on the particular type of felony offense and existence of a criminal history, a felony conviction may or may not require a prison term. In those cases where prison is not mandatory, the court will suspend the imposition of sentence and order a term of probation. While on probation, the defendant is required to abide by certain terms and conditions. If one violates the terms of their probation, the court may revoke their probation and impose the prison term that was previously suspended. The length of the prison term is determined by several factors including the class of the felony and the nature of the underlying crime. Even if probation is successfully completed and the case is terminated without a prison term being imposed, the conviction itself will still remain on the defendant's criminal record and prevent them from exercising their civil rights unless and until they have those rights restored by the court.
In the gray area between a misdemeanor and a felony exists the undesignated offense. An "undesignated offense" or "six open" is treated, for all intents and purposes, as a class 6 felony while the person is on probation. If probation is revoked and a prison term is ordered, the case will become a designated class 6 felony and the length of the prison sentence will be calculated no different than other class 6 felonies. On the other hand, if probation is successfully completed, the court may designate the case a misdemeanor when the defendant finishes their probation and allow the case to be put behind them without having a felony conviction appear on their record.