Terminology is a confusing aspect of New York’s criminal justice system. Not only are a huge number of unique terms used on the legal side, the very description and classification of crimes are unfamiliar to most people who are not a New York criminal lawyer or in law enforcement.
You might be thinking, “why is this lack of familiarity with words and classification a problem when every defendant is entitled to a New York criminal lawyer, who should know the definitions and the legal system?” For one, some defendants don’t realize how serious the criminal charges are because they don’t recognize the definitions.
A second reason to become more familiar with the division and classification of crimes is it can help you provide better and more reliable information to your New York criminal lawyer. When a defendant is informed, he or she is far better at participating in his or her own defense. Information also helps a defendant stay calm, act more rationally, and build trust with his or her lawyer.
When you are arraigned in a criminal court, the prosecutor reads the charges against you. The prosecutor may say, “Defendant A is charged with murder in the first degree.” For many defendants, the words, “in the first degree,” are a mystery. The degree of offense indicates the severity of the crime committed, and most crimes in New York can be charged in varying degrees.
The most egregious crimes are those charged in the first degree, while the least serious is charged in the fourth or fifth degree. The appropriate severity of a criminal charge is determined by the elements of the specific crime. For example, when a murder is intentional and premeditated, it can be charged with murder in the first degree, but a murder without premeditation may be charged with murder in the second degree.
A prosecutor will consider the facts and circumstances of a given case before deciding what degree is the appropriate criminal charge. Often, when a New York criminal lawyer negotiates with the prosecutor for a plea bargain or otherwise, it is to reduce the charges to a less serious degree, and therefore a less severe potential sentence.
In New York, there are two broad divisions of crimes – felonies and misdemeanors. Unlike the system and structure for the degree of an offense, felonies and misdemeanors are unrelated to your arrest or the charges. But the two are interrelated through severity.
The difference between a felony and misdemeanor can be broadly explained by severity. Felonies are the more serious and egregious crimes, while misdemeanors are considered less serious. However, when it comes to fully understanding the division between felony and misdemeanor there is actually a lot more to the story.
For a New York criminal lawyer and in the New York Penal Law, the division between felony and misdemeanor is sentencing. The jail sentence for a misdemeanor cannot exceed one year. No matter the type of crime – theft, sexual assault, burglary, or indecent exposure – the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor charge is 365 days.
In contrast, a felony is any crime that is punishable by a jail term or prison sentence of one year or longer. Again the type of crime is irrelevant, and all varieties of crimes are felonies, from murder to robbery. The maximum prison sentence for a felony in New York is life in prison without parole. The exact term of incarceration is often restricted by another aspect of the sentencing structure in New York.
There are nine different felony classifications for crimes in New York. These classifications are first divided into violent or non-violent offenses and then further as class A, B, C, D, or E felonies. For example, a heinous and intentional murder could be charged as a class A violent felony. On the other hand, grand larceny (theft) in the third degree is a class D non-violent offense.
According to the sentencing chart in the New York Penal Law, each class of felony has a maximum allowed sentence. Looking back at our two examples, the maximum sentence for a class A violent felony is life in prison, but a class D non-violent offense doesn’t receive any jail time, only probation up to seven years. Some felony classes also have a minimum sentence requirement. As an example, class B violent felonies cannot be sentenced less than five years.
This sentencing structure is designed to eliminate bias on the part of judges and set expectations for a New York criminal lawyer and his or her client while giving some latitude for the specifics of a case.
If you have other questions about crimes in New York, specific criminal charges, or terminology used in the criminal justice process – speak with a New York criminal lawyer today. Greco Neyland, PC’s New York offices are available 24/7 to schedule a free, initial consultation and answer your questions. Simply call 212-951-1300.