When potential clients call our office, they generally know what “crime” they’ve been charged with but they don’t always know what that means.
Sometimes, people will have researched enough to know that there are “maximum penalties” related to the various levels of charges. Often, there will be confusion if the person was not arrested but is simply being summonsed to court for a criminal charge. Being arrested at the scene, arrested based on an arrest warrant, or being summoned to court are all methods of securing your presence before the Court. However, for the purposes of this blog post, the focus is what actually constitutes a felony, a gross misdemeanor, or a misdemeanor.
In the State of Washington, criminal charges fall into the following basic categories:
Classification and designation of crimes.
(1) Classified Felonies.
(a) The particular classification of each felony defined in Title 9A RCW is expressly designated in the section defining it.
(b) For purposes of sentencing, classified felonies are designated as one of three classes, as follows:
(i) Class A felony; or
(ii) Class B felony; or
(iii) Class C felony.
(2) Misdemeanors and Gross Misdemeanors.
(a) Any crime punishable by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than ninety days, or by both such fine and imprisonment is a misdemeanor. Whenever the performance of any act is prohibited by any statute, and no penalty for the violation of such statute is imposed, the committing of such act shall be a misdemeanor.
(b) All crimes other than felonies and misdemeanors are gross misdemeanors.
A felony level charge is the most serious criminal charge. Various conduct can result in a felony level charge. Obviously, murder, robbery, assaults where a weapon is used, or distribution of drugs would be charged as a felony but other, less serious crimes, can become a felony-level charge based on the circumstance. For example, if you are cited for DUI and also cause an accident, it will likely be charged as a misdemeanor. However, if the accident results is serious injury, you might be charged later with a felony once the Prosecutor checks on the status of the victims.
Assaults charges also vary significantly based on the circumstances as well as the victim. If you assault your family member by shoving her, you could be charged with Assault 4-DV (domestic violence). However, if you threaten the person with a knife, you would be charged with a felony-level assault. If the person is your roommate, your charge will include a domestic violence (DV) classification. If the person is a stranger, there will be no reference to DV.
Theft charges are classified as misdemeanors or felonies depending on the value of the item or items that were stolen. So, as you can see, the charging of a crime is not clear cut. Even if you were originally charged with a misdemeanor, upon investigation by the Prosecutor, your charges might increase to a felony or multiple felonies. And, although less common, the Prosecutor can also reduce charges from a felony to a misdemeanor.
To understand whether a crime is a felony, gross misdemeanor, or a misdemeanor, you must look at Chapter 9A of the RCW to look up each specific crime. For example, if you look up RCW 9A.56 on Theft and Robbery, you will find all classifications of theft that a Prosecutor could charge under various circumstances. Whether you stole your neighbor’s cow or a grocery cart, there is a specific charge for these actions. This chapter will provide definitions of each crime and whether it amounts to a felony, gross misdemeanor, or misdemeanor.
We can’t emphasize enough that this information is very general. It is not legal advice and cannot substitute for legal counsel with regard to your unique situation. However, if you read below, you will find some general guidelines with regard to maximum sentences. It is important to understand that charges are just charges. A conviction or a plea is what really dictates your sentence. Additionally, these are guidelines and neither the Judge nor the Prosecutor must seek the maximum sentence. In DUI cases, it would be extremely unusual to be sentenced to 90 days in jail (we’ve never seen it or heard of it happening on a first offense). However, those days could be suspended and, in that case, you would only spend the remaining days of that sentence in jail if you fail to comply with your plea or re-offend with another DUI.
Here are the maximum penalties for the previously listed categories:
Maximum sentences for crimes committed July 1, 1984, and after.
(1) Felony. Unless a different maximum sentence for a classified felony is specifically established by a statute of this state, no person convicted of a classified felony shall be punished by confinement or fine exceeding the following:
(a) For a class A felony, by confinement in a state correctional institution for a term of life imprisonment, or by a fine in an amount fixed by the court of fifty thousand dollars, or by both such confinement and fine;
(b) For a class B felony, by confinement in a state correctional institution for a term of ten years, or by a fine in an amount fixed by the court of twenty thousand dollars, or by both such confinement and fine;
(c) For a class C felony, by confinement in a state correctional institution for five years, or by a fine in an amount fixed by the court of ten thousand dollars, or by both such confinement and fine.
(2) Gross misdemeanor. Every person convicted of a gross misdemeanor defined in Title 9A RCW shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for a maximum term fixed by the court of up to three hundred sixty-four days, or by a fine in an amount fixed by the court of not more than five thousand dollars, or by both such imprisonment and fine.
(3) Misdemeanor. Every person convicted of a misdemeanor defined in Title 9A RCW shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for a maximum term fixed by the court of not more than ninety days, or by a fine in an amount fixed by the court of not more than one thousand dollars, or by both such imprisonment and fine.
(4) This section applies to only those crimes committed on or after July 1, 1984.
(5) The fines in this section apply to adult offenders only.
You can also look at the State Sentencing Guidelines for further clarification. However, it is important to note that, unless you understand all aspects of sentencing (including offender score, etc.), you may find this overwhelming and confusing. Familiarizing yourself with aspects of the criminal justice system, criminal charges, and sentencing can be helpful for general information but it is no substitute for legal advice. Every defendant, every criminal charge, and every sentence is unique.
If you or someone you know is facing a criminal charge, consult with a criminal defense attorney. At Witt Law Group PS, we always offer a free consultation so you can discuss the individual circumstances surrounding your charge. If we can help, give us a call or contact us via our website. We have offices in GIg Harbor and Bremerton for your convenience.