The fundamental distinction between felonies and misdemeanors rests with the penalty and the power of imprisonment.  The dividing line between felonies and misdemeanors is not whether someone convicted of a particular crime must be punished by a specific time in jail, but whether such person may be punished for a certain length of time or in a specific type of prison.  A misdemeanor for example, is generally a crime that is punishable for a year or less in prison, or only in a county or local jail. 

Both Idaho and Washington also have infractions, which are acts that are against the law, but only punishable by a fine.  Traffic violations are the most common examples. 

Some crimes can be either a felony or a misdemeanor based on an additional element or aggravating characteristic.  For example, simply punching someone in a bar fight might be a misdemeanor battery, but punching them while using brass knuckles might be a felony based on the use of a weapon.  Or, possession of a small personal amount of marijuana might be a misdemeanor, while possessing twenty pounds of marijuana might lead to felony charges based on the volume of the drug. 

Being convicted of a felony, as opposed to a misdemeanor, can have serious and long lasting consequences.  In addition to the longer punishment, a person convicted of a felony loses the right to possess firearms or obtain certain licenses, such as a hunting or fishing license, or lose their right to vote.  A felon is required to disclose his status when applying for jobs and a repeat felon can face much harsher punishments. 

The Federal System

Just like the State of Idaho and the State of Washington criminal system, the Federal criminal system comes with its own set of statutes, procedures, courts, judges and prosecutors.  The difference lies, however, in that the crimes prosecuted in Federal court are those that are related to the Federal government, crimes that cross state lines, and crimes of international flavor.

Another difference between the two systems is the punishment given for the convicted offense.  In a State system the judge has discretion to punish the convicted person as he sees fit, sometimes outside the guidelines set out in the violated statutes. 

The Federal criminal system, on the other hand, has guideline sentences for each offense.  Although these guidelines are no longer mandatory, the judge usually sticks with the guideline sentences anyway.

This is one of the reasons, many consider the federal system to be very harsh and unforgiving.  However, despite the severity of the federal system, people can still successfully defend themselves by not speaking with the police or Federal law enforcement (FBI, DEA, ICE, ATF, IRS, etc.) without an attorney present, by properly preparing for trial, and by having a good Federal criminal defense attorney on their side throughout all stages of the criminal case.



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