What is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?
Felony and misdemeanor are old English terms. A lot of Virginia law, especially Virginia criminal law, has been brought over from English common law because Virginia was initially an English colony. A lot of those old laws from England have been taken into our law. Originally, felonies in England were punishable by death. That is not the case anymore, but the term ‘felony’ lives on to refer to more serious offenses. In Virginia, a felony is anything punishable by prison time. The differentiation between prison and jail is that jail is local, while prison is part of the Department of Corrections system. There are six categories of felonies and they are all punishable by actual prison time. Misdemeanors, of which there are four classes, are less serious offenses. Typically the most serious misdemeanor offenses are assault, petit larceny, and DUI. Those types are only punishable by up to 12 months in jail, up to a $2,500 fine, or a combination thereof, as well as potential other special conditions depending on the nature of the offense.
In general, felonies are much more serious. Misdemeanors are less serious in terms of the court procedure standard. Lesser criminal cases originate in the general district court, which can make a finding of guilty or not guilty. That court does not make the final adjudication of a felony offense. Only the circuit court of a given jurisdiction can make the final adjudication decision for a felony if the case proceeds to trial or entry of a plea.