The range of punishment is the most significant difference between a misdemeanor and a felony. Misdemeanors are punishable by a maximum of one year behind bars. Felonies are punishable by one year of incarceration or longer. The distinction between misdemeanors and felonies became more critical in the late 1880s when plea bargaining became more common in American courts. Regardless of its classification, the essential elements of a crime are the same.

The approach of a Rochester criminal defense lawyer is usually the same for either a misdemeanor or a felony. Although the range of punishment is different, both types of offenses are pretty severe. The burden of proof is the same in both kinds of crimes as well. Prosecutors must prove guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. So, lack of evidence is usually the best defense against either a misdemeanor or a felony.

Basic Components of a Criminal Offense

As previously mentioned, the burden of proof is most important to the actus rea, or criminal act. Technically, both direct and circumstantial evidence is admissible. But circumstantial cases are hard to prove in criminal court. Say a witness sees Tim running away from Sally’s dead body, that could mean he killed Sally, or it could mean he was scared. If a witness saw Tim kill Sally, the state’s case is much stronger. If investigators also recovered the murder weapon, Tim is in real trouble.

There’s a difference between an act and a condition. In ye olden days, laws prohibited things like homosexuality and drug addiction. A similar issue still comes up today in some assault cases and other violent crimes. It’s not illegal to have a bad temper or to be violently angry at someone. It’s only illegal to hit someone intentionally.

This point leads us to the mens rea, or criminal state of mind, the other fundamental element of most criminal offenses. Most New York criminal laws apply to “intentional” conduct. The I-word usually means non-accidental. In some cases, “knowingly” doing something illegal is also a crime. For example, it’s unlawful to knowingly remove some items from state or national parks, even if the defendant didn’t mean to do anything wrong.

Jurors may infer intent from conduct. If Tim hit Sally with a baseball bat, he probably intended to hurt her, even if he says otherwise on the stand. However, if Tim pushed Sally and she fell down the stairs, the intent is harder to prove, at least beyond a reasonable doubt.

Regulatory offenses, such as DWI and traffic tickets, have no mens rea requirement. Prosecutors need not prove that defendants intentionally or knowingly ran stop signs or drove drunk.

Types of Criminal Offenses and Rochester Criminal Defense Lawyers

Attacking the mens rea evidence in a criminal case is often an effective defense. Let’s see how this defense plays out in the three major types of criminal offenses.


This category includes offenses like assault, murder, and sexual assault. In addition to the direct evidence mentioned above, these cases often rely on a confession.

Strict rules, such as the Miranda rule, apply in this area. Officers must advise defendants of their Miranda rights, such as the right to remain silent, very early in the process. Any evidence they subsequently obtain, including a confession, could be inadmissible in court if they fail to do so. The fewer arrows of evidence the state has in its quiver, the harder it is to hit the target.


Drug possession is by far the leading offense in this category. Others include possession of an illegal firearm and possession of illegal pornography. In these cases, prosecutors must establish the following elements:

  • Proximity
  • Knowledge
  • Control

Assume Mary is at home when her new roommate is selling drugs. Prosecutors can probably establish proximity. Depending on the facts, they might have difficulty establishing control and knowledge, especially since the burden of proof is so high.


These offenses involve reducing the value of property, usually by taking it without permission or by defacing it.

Much like personal offenses, property crimes usually require a non-officer witness. This requirement is hard to meet in many cases. Some civilian witnesses are uncooperative. The state could force these people to testify against their will, but prosecutors rarely use this power. Other times, by the time the case goes to trial, the primary complaining witness has moved and is unavailable.

Consult an Experienced Attorney About a Misdemeanor or Felony

Other than the different ranges of punishment, felonies and misdemeanors are the same. For a free consultation with an experienced Rochester criminal defense lawyer, contact the Law Office of Frank Ciardi. We routinely handle matters in Monroe County and nearby jurisdictions.

The information in this blog is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter.

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