Misdemeanor vs. Felony - Levels of Crimes in Minnesota

A common question we get from our clients and family/friends is: what is the difference between a misdemeanor vs. felony? To understand this, we will go over the full list of levels of crimes in Minnesota, starting with a type of conviction that is technically not a crime.

The Difference Between a Misdemeanor vs. Felony

Distinctions between misdemeanors and felonies in Minnesota are based on factors such as the nature of the offense, the potential harm caused, and the prescribed punishment under state law.

Petty Misdemeanor

Petty misdemeanors are not crimes, per Minnesota law. So, while a person may be convicted of a petty misdemeanor in criminal court, that does not change the fact that the offense is not a crime when it is a petty misdemeanor sentence. A petty misdemeanor sentence is a fine only, with a maximum of $300. There is no probation or any time to serve. Petty misdemeanors are most often associated with traffic violations, but can be an agreed upon negotiated result for misdemeanor crimes. For instance, a misdemeanor fifth-degree assault could be negotiated to just a petty misdemeanor conviction with a fine.

Because petty misdemeanors are not crimes, such offenses should not result in a criminal record during background checks. And a person should not feel obligated to say they have been convicted of a crime when they simply have a petty misdemeanor record. With that being said, there is a record of the charge and petty misdemeanor conviction that exists and can be found. 


Misdemeanors are the lowest level of crime in Minnesota. They are commonly associated with simple assaults or first-time DWI‘s. The maximum penalty is 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Typically, a defendant never serves the full 90 days or pays the maximum fine, but those are the maximum consequences in play.

A misdemeanor conviction is a crime and will be a criminal record on a person’s criminal background check. As such, a person can suffer collateral consequences as a result of a misdemeanor conviction. These can include, but are not limited to, loss of job, apartment, or volunteering opportunities; loss of a professional license; and difficulty in finding employment in the future. Sometimes, a certain misdemeanor conviction can be problematic for entering a foreign country – such as Canada with a DWI conviction. With all that being said, many misdemeanor conviction records do not negatively impact a person’s life once they are done with the criminal case and any probation.

Gross Misdemeanor

Gross misdemeanor is the next level in seriousness for a crime in Minnesota. These are commonly associated with a second-time or elevated-reading DWI or a second-time domestic assault. The maximum penalty is 364 days in jail and a $3,000 fine. Again, like a misdemeanor, a defendant rarely serves the full year in custody or pays the maximum fine. Instead, the defendant is placed on probation that can be 2 years in length or longer, such as six-years for certain DWI’s. And with gross misdemeanor offenses, the terms of probation are often more involved and burdensome to the defendant because it is a more serious offense.

Just like misdemeanors, gross misdemeanor crimes will be on the person’s criminal background check and is more likely to lead to collateral consequences, as discussed before.


A felony level offense is the most serious crime in Minnesota. The maximum penalty depends on the type of crime – with life in prison for first-degree murder to no mandatory prison sentence for lower-level offenses – such as a felony theft. Similarly, the maximum fine will range depending on the severity of the crime.

Minnesota has created sentencing guidelines for felony offenses to create consistency in the sentences for each type of crime. Many felony crimes do not require a sentence to prison, while others require prison time to be served. Even in the instance where prison is not mandated, a sentence may still include local jail time to be served. And crimes that require prison time may not ultimately result in a sentence to prison if the defendant is able to get a departure. Needless to say, felony crimes have much more at stake for individuals, not just in the possible criminal sentence, but the collateral consequences in play.

A person loses certain rights while under a felony sentence, such as the right to vote and possess firearms. Upon the completion of probation and discharge from it, those civil rights are restored, unless the person is convicted of a crime of violence, in which the person is permanently barred from possessing firearms.

In addition to these collateral consequences, others may be in play, such as having to register as a sex offender and then being considered a felon. As you can probably guess, a felony conviction will almost certainly negatively impact a person’s ability to not only find future employment, but even to keep current employment; it’ll be more difficult to find housing, maintain a professional license, and engage in other community services and involvement.

So, for those trying to understand the difference between a misdemeanor vs. felony – there is a lot. A misdemeanor is the lowest level of crime, rarely results in time to serve, and rarely results in meaningful collateral consequences. Conversely, a felony is the most serious level of crime, often results in custody time (including prison), being subject to lengthy probation and burdensome conditions of probation, a loss of civil rights, and will most certainly negatively impact a person going forward. 

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney Today

If you still have questions regarding a misdemeanor vs felony, and what’s at stake for your criminal case, do not hesitate contact us with further questions.