One of my roles as an attorney is to make specialized, legal information accessible to my clients. Clients hire attorneys to handle their matters. A reasonable attorney needs to make sure his or her clients know how severe any allegations are. But the purpose of today’s post is to remind people that any allegation of criminal conduct should be taken very, very seriously.
I bring this up because I was reminded last week about the gap between an attorney’s knowledge and their clients’ knowledge. I had a bunch of phone calls with people, some clients, some potential clients, where we talked about whether a particular charge was a felony or a misdemeanor. I told multiple individuals that their charges weren’t felonies and each one replied “Oh good, I’m glad it’s not serious.”
On the one hand they’re right — a felony is more serious than a misdemeanor. But that’s like saying a house fire is less serious than a forest fire. Even though a felony is technically more serious than a misdemeanor, both require your absolute, immediate attention. Let’s talk about why misdemeanors are so serious, and why they deserve a serious response.
What is the difference between a felony and misdemeanor?
First let me be a bit more specific. There are actually multiples categories of crimes in Washington. These include misdemeanors, gross misdemeanor, felonies, felonies with indeterminate sentencing, aggravated felonies (aggravated murder), and juvenile crimes. For the purposes of simplicity today, I’ll going to lump misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors together. All the other non-juvenile crimes I’ll shorthand to felonies.
I’ve compared the legal definition misdemeanors versus felonies before, but basically the difference is one of severity of punishment. Misdemeanors carry maximum sentences of 364 days or less. Felonies carry maximum sentences of one year or more.
Felony convictions also have consequences beyond jail time. Generally, felons aren’t allowed to own firearms, vote, or serve on juries. They can be excluded from employment options more easily (more on that below). And felons often encounter restrictions on travel and relocation. Some felons also are subject to specialized sentences, like registering as a sex offender.
Misdemeanors, by contrast, don’t automatically include these losses of civil rights. People convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence do lose firearm rights, but no one convicted of a misdemeanor will lose the right to vote or participate in the jury process. But:
Any criminal conviction can have painful and lasting effects
And misdemeanors are well among them. There are both crime specific consequences and general consequences. I’ll discuss some consequences flowing from specific misdemeanor convictions, then talk about the effect of a conviction of any misdemeanor.
- Consequences of convictions of specific crimes
As a sampling: DUI convictions have mandatory jail sentences and license suspensions upon conviction. Reckless Driving convictions have mandatory 90-day license suspensions. Domestic Violence Assault convictions have loss of firearm rights and restrictions on travel. Hit and Run convictions carry a loss of one’s driver’s license for a year. All of these collateral consequences are built into the criminal laws themselves.
But some consequences arise from the intersection of a conviction and other laws. A conviction of Reckless Endangerment prohibits someone from being licensed as a nurse, pharmacist, or working with children for a number of years. Certain misdemeanor convictions for possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia bar a person from receiving federal higher education financial aid for the rest of their life. Many crimes have immigration consequences for non-citizens. And I’ve already written about consequences for American citizens with convictions travelling to Canada.
- Consequences of convictions of any crime
Being known as a criminal is a polarizing label in our society. While your criminal history is not publicly broadcast information, it is public information. For a small fee, anyone can look up your background.
But social stigma aside, criminal convictions create significant housing and employment barriers.
Many people rent apartments. And many of those apartment complexes do background checks on potential tenants, looking for issues that may cause them liability down the road. From a legal perspective, most apartments are risk-averse and consider many people with convictions to be too risky to rent to. Without a co-lessee or a roommate or a kind apartment manager, individuals with misdemeanors may struggle to find housing.
Far worse though, is the effect of convictions on employment prospects. Most jobs that have job applications have a space to ask about criminal convictions. True, some of those only ask about felonies, and some only ask about convictions in the past 10(!) years. But a great many ask about any conviction at all, or even any arrest at all (“Please explain the circumstances. Attach a separate sheet of paper if necessary.”)
These are tough times and employers can afford to be picky. Hiring managers love having an easy way to start culling the pool, and excluding people with convictions is a popular way.
It’s so popular that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently re-asserted their prohibition of barring someone from employment simply because of a criminal conviction. They wouldn’t have had to clarify their position unless there was widespread abuse. The New York Times wrote a brief opinion of the practice and the mandate from the EEOC.
But realistically, employers are still going to give any applicant with a conviction the short shrift. It’s not wholly unreasonable since employers, like landlords, can be liable for criminal acts of people they let on their property. But there are different levels of risk associated with employing someone with a seriously felony conviction like Residential Burglary and employing someone with a misdemeanor conviction like Minor in Possession of Alcohol. But to many employers, that brush with the criminal justice system is enough for a “thanks, but no thanks.”
What to do?
Slate did a recent article on the issue of the serious effects of any misdemeanor conviction, which you can read here. That article discusses the serious consequences of any criminal conviction. The article also touched on the “churn” of misdemeanor charges and convictions, and laments the lack of aggressive defense those charges deserve.
But the solution is simple, if not easy. First, try not to get charged with a crime. If you do get charged, fight like hell to keep it off your record. There are many dispositions that don’t result in convictions. And if necessary, a trial might be an effective way of avoiding a conviction. But the onus is on you to protect your rights and obtain effective Seattle Criminal Defense representation. Criminal charges are too serious for self-help. And any conviction may have lasting and unforeseen consequences for decades to come. Take a misdemeanor seriously, because everyone else does.