Understanding the Differences Between a North Carolina Felony Charge and a Misdemeanor

There is a distinct difference between a felony and a misdemeanor in North Carolina criminal law. A felony is the more serious charge. 

The basic distinction between the two categories of offenses is the type of punishment. A misdemeanor can be punished by up to 150 days in jail. The minimum punishment for a felony is twelve months in prison, and there is no maximum. All crimes which can be punished by the death penalty in North Carolina are felonies.


In North Carolina, infractions are the lowest level of offense against the law. Infractions are considered non-criminal acts, punishable only by fines. State law sets the maximum fine for an infraction at $100. A guilty person also may be responsible for paying court costs for an infraction. Most traffic tickets are considered infractions.


Even though misdemeanors involve less severe punishment than a North Carolina felony, they are still significant criminal offenses. Our state ranks misdemeanors into four classes, from Class 3 (the least serious) to Class A1 (the most serious). The class of the misdemeanor offense is one factor a judge will use to determine the punishment for an offense.

  • Class 3 misdemeanors have a maximum penalty of 20 days in jail and a $200 fine. Typical offenses include second degree trespass, disorderly conduct, and simple possession of marijuana (less than ½ ounce).
  • Class 2 misdemeanor maximum penalty is 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Common Class 2 offenses are simple assault, resisting an officer, issuing a worthless check valued at $2,000 or less, and carrying a concealed weapon.
  • Class 1 misdemeanors can be punished by up to 120 days in jail and a fine set by the judge’s discretion. These serious offenses include larceny under $1,000, possession of stolen goods, and driving with license revoked. In addition, if a Class 2 or Class 3 misdemeanor is committed because of the victim’s race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin, the offense becomes a Class 1 misdemeanor.

At the top of the scale, Class A1 misdemeanors have a maximum penalty of 150 days in jail and a discretionary fine. Offenses include assault with a deadly weapon, driving while intoxicated, violation of a restraining order, and sexual battery.


Felonies in North Carolina are divided into 10 different classifications—A, B1, B2, C, D, E, F, G, H, and I, in order from most to least serious. All Class A felonies are punishable by death or life imprisonment without parole.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for the likely punishment for the lower classes of felonies. Sentences can include a mix of fines, probation (with or without supervision), or prison terms of any length. The judge takes into account the seriousness of the offense and the defendant’s previous criminal record. The judge can choose to suspend the sentence and impose probation or other community punishment, or to deal even more harshly with the defendant than the minimum requires.

Prosecutorial Discretion

A North Carolina prosecuting attorney has a great deal of latitude in deciding what charge to bring. Depending on the circumstances, a punch thrown in a bar fight might be prosecuted as a Class 2 misdemeanor battery, a Class A1 misdemeanor battery, or a felony.

If you have been charged with a criminal offense, seek legal representation. The court will appoint an attorney for you if you are unable to afford one. You need to have someone on your side who understands the law and is not afraid to challenge the prosecution in the courtroom.

At Speaks Law Firm, our Wilmington criminal defense lawyers are ready to stand by you in your North Carolina felony or misdemeanor case. We have the negotiating skills to discover whether the prosecutor is willing to lower the charges. We have the courtroom knowledge and experience to give you a compelling defense before a jury. We can assure you that we will speak out to explain your side of the story. Call our office today at 910-341-7570 (locally) or 877-593-4233 (statewide toll-free) to connect to a New Hanover County criminal defense law firm, where every client is our most important client.

R. Clarke Speaks
Connect with me
Trial Lawyer and Founder of Speaks Law Firm, P.C.