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Felonies, Misdemeanors, and Infractions in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Criminal Justice System defines crime as any offense that is punishable by death sentence or incarceration. It also categorizes criminal offenses into four distinct categories in the state:

  • Murder (of persons and of the unborn child)
  • Felony
  • Misdemeanor
  • Summary offenses

These criminal categorizations are done on the basis of the weight of the offense and the appropriate penalties applicable in compliance with the Pennsylvania Penal code.

What is Murder in Pennsylvania?

The state of Pennsylvania describes murder (also criminal homicide) as the first category of crime in the state. Murder is the unlawful causing of another person’s death through acts of negligence, premeditation, or recklessness. The state of Pennsylvania divides murder into three degrees based on how culpable the offender is and on the specific motive as follows:

  • Murder of the first degree (of persons and unborn child)
  • Murder of the second degree (of person and unborn child)
  • Murder of the third degree (of person and unborn child)

Murder in the first degree is the gravest kind of crime in the state of Pennsylvania. It attracts the capital punishment of death or mandatory life imprisonment without the option of parole upon conviction. It is the intentional and premeditated killing of another human being. It is distinguished from other degrees of murder by the specific motive to kill and the preparation undertaken to do so. The state’s criminal laws identify the presence of malice as a characteristic difference between first-degree murder and other degrees of murder. The use of a deadly weapon clearly establishes the presence of malice. Some examples of murder in the first degree include:

  • Poisoning a person
  • Laying ambush (or lying in wait) to kill a person

Pennsylvania state also assigns the same penalty for the first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer. It, however, assigns only the punishment of life imprisonment for the first-degree murder of an unborn child in line with Pa.C. S. § 9711(d)(17).

Murder of the second degree is committed when a felony is being perpetrated and it does not involve premeditation. The defendant is considered culpable whether or not he or she is the principal offender or the accomplice. The state laws assign a penalty of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in line with 18 Pa. C. S. § 1102(b). This sentence also applies to second-degree murder of an unborn child and a law enforcement agent. Examples of felony offenses related to second-degree murder include:

  • Rape
  • Robbery
  • Burglary
  • Arson
  • Kidnapping.

Murder of the third degree refers to all other types of murder excluding murder of the first and second degree. It carries a sentence of up to twenty years imprisonment. However, an individual convicted for third-degree murder of an unborn child will serve a sentence of up to forty years in prison. Murder of the third degree is usually classified as a felony of the first degree.

What is a felony in Pennsylvania?

A felony is a more serious crime compared to misdemeanors in the state of Pennsylvania. Felony crimes are usually characterized by weightier prison sentences and heavier fines. The state penal code designates matching penalties for individuals convicted of different felonies including incarceration and fines.

What are some examples of felonies in Pennsylvania?

General examples of felony crimes include:

  • Arson
  • Kidnapping
  • Burglary
  • Rape
  • Aggravated assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Property theft
  • Bribery
  • Possession of child pornography
  • Involuntary manslaughter

The state of Pennsylvania divides felony into three classes to clearly define differences in severity and corresponding penalties:

  • Felony of the first degree
  • Felony of the second degree
  • Felony of the third degree

A felony of the first degree is the most severe of all three degrees of felony criminal charges. Upon conviction, it is punishable by a prison term ranging from 10 to 20 years. In addition, it also attracts a fine of up to $25,000. Examples of crimes under this group include:

  • Kidnapping
  • Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon
  • Arson endangering people
  • Rape
  • Major theft of property (valued at $500,000 and above)

Felony of the second degree attracts penalties of up to ten years imprisonment and fines of up to $25,000. Some examples of criminal offenses connected with a second-degree felony are:

  • Aggravated assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Involuntary manslaughter (involving a victim less than 12 years old)
  • Burglary (of an empty residence)
  • Theft of property (valued between $100,000 and $500,000)

Felony of the third degree refers to all types of felony crime excluding felonies of the first and second degree. It is the least severe of all the three degrees of felony crime and it is punishable by prison terms of up to seven years and fines of no more than $15,000.

  • Bribery
  • Possession of child pornography
  • Drugs possession with intent to distribute
  • Certain firearm offenses
  • Property theft (valued between $2,000 and $100,000)

Unclassified felony criminal offenses are designated as felony of the third degree and fetch the same penalties outlined for that degree.

Can I get a Felony Removed from a Court Record in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania law does not typically permit felony convictions to be expunged or sealed. The state criminal laws only provide for a felony to be removed when:

  • the person has been dead for three years
  • the person is seventy years old and has had zero convictions or prosecutions for ten years following the completion of his or her sentence.(18 Pa. C. S. A. § 9122 (2019)

Criminal records that are eligible for expungement include:

  • Records with non-convictions (18 Pa. C. S. A. § 9122 (2019))
  • Records of crimes settled through a diversionary program like ARD (Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition). (234 Pa. Code Rule 320; 18 Pa. C. S. A. § 9122 (2019))
  • Records of crimes related to the possession, purchase or consumption of alcohol. (18 Pa. C. S. A. § 9122 (2019).)
  • Records of summary convictions for which five years have elapsed with no prosecutions or convictions recorded
  • Records for persons who have been dead for three years
  • Records for persons aged seventy years old who have had zero convictions or prosecutions for the past ten (10) years after completing their sentences.(18 Pa. C. S. A. § 9122 (2019))

A felony can, however, be removed by obtaining a pardon. A pardon is an act of clemency or forgiveness granted by the Governor of Pennsylvania for an individual’s criminal conviction(s). It is generally premised on the recommendation of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. The pardon essentially sets aside the convictions and reverts it to a dismissal of charges. Records of dismissed charges are eligible for expungement or sealing and can thus be removed.

Is expungement the same as Order of Limited Access In Pennsylvania?

In the state of Pennsylvania, expungement is different from an Order of Limited Access (also known as court sealing). Expungement of records serves the same basic function as sealing of records since they both restrict members of the public from access. However, expunged records, which involve the destruction of records, cause records to cease to exist. Sealed records, while not open to public access, still exist in government databases. Thus, they are still available to members of the justice criminal system (like the police, judges, prosecutors) for investigative purposes.

How Long Does a Felony Stay on Your Record in Pennsylvania?

Although a person’s felony record can expire in Pennsylvania, felonies, like murder, are not eligible for expungement or court sealing. However, the state criminal code provides for the expungement of a felony from a person’s record when:

  • the person has been dead for 3 years
  • the person is seventy (70) years old and has had zero convictions or prosecutions for ten years following the completion of his or her sentence.(18 Pa. C. S. A. § 9122 (2019)).

Obtaining a pardon from the Governor of Pennsylvania can ensure that a felony is removed from an individual’s criminal records. Barring this, a felony will remain on the individual’s record until he or she at least attains the age of seventy years.

What is a Misdemeanor in Pennsylvania?

A misdemeanor is a crime that is liable, upon conviction, to fetch a defendant at least a one-year imprisonment term and fines as punishment. Although misdemeanors are comparatively less serious than felonies, they are still associated with certain weighty repercussions even after time in jail has been served and fines paid. They also carry higher penalties than summary offenses which typically carry no jail time.

The state of Pennsylvania categorizes misdemeanors into three classes to clearly distinguish differences in severity and corresponding penalties:

  • Misdemeanor of the first degree
  • Misdemeanor of the second degree
  • Misdemeanor of the third degree

Misdemeanor of the first degree is the most serious of the three degrees of misdemeanor. They are crimes that are punishable by maximum imprisonment terms of up to five years and fines of up to $10,000. An example is simple assault.

Misdemeanors of the second degree are crimes that carry a maximum prison sentence of up to two years and fines of up to $5,000. Bigamy is a typical example of this degree of misdemeanor.

Misdemeanor of the third degree refers to criminal offenses that attract legal maximum punishments of up to one-year imprisonment and fines of $2,500 upon conviction. A clear example of this class is railroad vandalism.

Unclassified misdemeanor criminal offenses are designated as misdemeanors of the third degree and fetch the same penalties outlined for that degree.

What are some examples of Misdemeanors in Pennsylvania?

The following criminal offenses are examples of misdemeanors in the state of Pennsylvania:

Misdemeanor of the first degree:

  • Stalking
  • Simple assault
  • Multiple DUI offenses
  • Terroristic threats
  • Assault of a sports official
  • Property theft (valued between $200 and $2,000)

Misdemeanor of the second degree:

  • Strangulation
  • Shoplifting
  • Bigamy
  • Impersonating a public servant
  • Property theft (valued between $50 and $200)

Misdemeanor of the third degree:

  • Railroad vandalism
  • Open lewdness
  • Possession of marijuana
  • Loitering and prowling at night
  • Property theft (valued less than $50)

Can I Get a Misdemeanor Removed from a Record in Pennsylvania?

Criminal records can be removed automatically for most misdemeanors of the second and third degrees in Pennsylvania in compliance with the new Clean Slate law. This removal is done by either expungement or court-sealing. Ordinarily, individuals with misdemeanor convictions may be able to seal their criminal record by applying for an Order for Limited Access. This restricts the conviction records from appearing on criminal background searches and from being publicly disclosed by law enforcement. Conditions for eligibility of expungement or sealing involves the subject of the conviction records:

  • Reaching the age of 70 years
  • Being arrest-free for 10 years after completion of sentence.
  • Being deceased for 3 years

Pennsylvania Clean Slate Act 56 of 2018 also permits the automatic sealing of most criminal records of misdemeanors once a judge confirms their eligibility and signs off on them. The Act also expands the list of misdemeanor records eligible for sealing. Despite this automatic sealing, local and federal law enforcement agents will still have access to sealed records. However, members of the public-including employers and landlords-are restricted from access.

The law applies to the following eligible groups:

  • Records of non-convictions,
  • Records of summary offenses
  • Records of nonviolent misdemeanor convictions (like drunk driving and shoplifting)

Sealing of records can also be done as long no new crime has been committed and all court fines and fees have been duly paid. Non-convictions are qualified to be sealed after 60 days while convictions are sealed after ten (10) years. Misdemeanor conviction records that cannot be sealed or expunged include records of:

  • Crimes involving danger to individuals (like assault)
  • Crimes against the family (like incest and bigamy)
  • Crimes involving firearms and deadly weapons
  • Crimes against minors (like statutory rape and truancy)
  • Sex crimes involving mandatory sex offender documentation/registration

Also, an individual will not be qualified to file a petition for limited access if he or she has been convicted of at least four offenses within the past twenty years. This conviction must be punishable by at least two years in incarceration. There must also be no convictions for the following crimes (having at least seven years prison terms) within the same period:

  • Crimes involving danger to the person
  • Crimes against the family
  • Crimes related to firearms or dangerous weapons
  • Sex-related crimes and sex offender registration

Furthermore, an individual cannot file a legal request for limited access if he or she has convictions in any of the following within the past 15 years:

  • Indecent exposure
  • Abuse of a corpse
  • Failure to register as a sex offender
  • Engaging in paramilitary training
  • Sexual intercourse with an animal
  • Crimes related to the introduction or ownership of a weapon or related implement in a prison, jail, or psychiatric hospital
  • At least two crimes punishable by two or more years imprisonment (18 Pa. C. S. A. § 9122.1 (2019))

Can a DUI Be Expunged in Pennsylvania?

A first-time DUI offense can be “loosely” considered as a summary offense and become eligible for expungement. This consideration is only possible if it is a general impairment DUI (.08 percent to.009 percent blood alcohol concentration). First-time DUI offenders can have their convictions expunged by enrolling for a diversionary program like the ARD (Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition) program. This program is approved by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. It is designed for first-time offenders who have no priors (previous criminal convictions) or prior ARD placements. The main objective of the program is the prompt disposition of charges. This in turn serves to dispense with the need for resource-depleting trials and other related court proceedings. The ARD program is particularly structured to identify first-time offenders who are willing to undergo rehabilitation and treatment. It also effectively and automatically eliminates their cases from the criminal justice system, thus liberating resources for better deployment elsewhere.

Offenders enrolled in the program are generally:

  • Placed on probation
  • Instructed to pay court fines and costs
  • Complete community service

Offenders who successfully participate and conclude the ARD program are able to:

  • Avoid jail time
  • Have briefer driver’s license suspensions.
  • File a dismissal of charges motion
  • Petition for expungement of his or her records.

Although under the new Pennsylvania Clean Slate Act, expungement may be automatic on successful completion of the program.

Repeat DUI offenders, whose offenses constitute serious misdemeanors and sometimes even felony convictions, are not eligible for expungement through the ARD program. Pennsylvania criminal code grants expungement when the convicted defendant:

  • Reaches the age of 70 years
  • Has been arrest-free for 10 years after completion of sentence.
  • Has been deceased for 3 years

What constitutes a Summary offense in Pennsylvania?

Summary offenses are the least serious of all criminal offenses in the state of Pennsylvania. They are generally dealt with in a district court and can be enforced by issuing a citation. Issuance is usually done by a law enforcement officer at the scene of the incident or by mail if no officer was present. The citation provides a short factual description of the incident, the law contravened and the section of law contravened. It also instructs the offender of his or her legally recommended response(s). The law enforcement agent may also effect arrests in cases of disorderly conduct. Most summary offenses do not impose jail time and can be settled by paying the stated fines and costs.

Summary offenses can also be divided into 3 categories namely:

  • Summary traffic offenses (under the Motor Vehicle code)
  • Non-traffic summary offenses (specified in the Pennsylvania crimes code)
  • Summary offenses under the Pennsylvania Game and Wildlife Code

Traffic Summary offenses are usually traffic law violations of the Motor Vehicle Code such as illegal parking, running a red light, and speeding. A driving offense like driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a more serious crime and is classified as a misdemeanor. Violators of traffic summary offenses are usually issued a traffic citation by a law enforcement officer. The alleged offender may be arrested on the basis of an arrest warrant if he or she fails to respond within ten (10) days.

Summary offenses under Pennsylvania criminal code are also known as non-traffic offenses. They constitute the least serious of all the classes of criminal offenses and carry the lightest penalties. It is, however, noteworthy that a non-traffic offense charge constitutes a criminal charge under the state laws. A conviction or guilty plea leads to the creation of a criminal record. This record is regarded as a public record and shows up in background checks by interested employers, school admission officials or licensing boards. Non-traffic summary offenses include disorderly conduct and underage drinking.

This category of summary offenses is committed when Pennsylvanian wildlife are illegally hunted and killed. The Pennsylvania Game and Wildlife code generally assigns penalties of different degrees for these types of offenses. Offenses under this category can further be classified into summaries of the first through the eighth degrees. The Game and Wildlife Code also stipulates higher fines than those commonly provided under the criminal code (In line with 34 Pa. C. S. A. § 925(b) (5)-(12)).. Another penalty that may also be incurred upon conviction is the loss or suspension of hunting privileges. For example, fines of between $1,000 and $1,500 may be assigned as a penalty for a summary offense of the first degree under the Game and Wildlife Code. 34 Pa. CSA § 925 (b)(5))..

What are some examples of Summary offenses in Pennsylvania?

General examples of summary offenses in Pennsylvania include the following:

  • Traffic offenses
  • Public urination
  • Underage drinking
  • Obstructing a highway
  • Not adhering to dog laws
  • Opening fire hydrants
  • Drunkenness and intoxication in public
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Defiant trespassing
  • Retention of library property after notice to return
  • Illegal use of shopping carts

Can Summary offenses be Expunged from a Pennsylvania Criminal Court Record?

Pennsylvania Clean Slate laws allow for the automatic expungement of criminal charges that do not result in convictions. Summary offenses are also eligible for expungement if the subject has recorded zero arrests for five years after the summary conviction. Criminal charges are also eligible for expungement if they were withdrawn, nolle prossed, dismissed, or had a “not guilty” verdict. A convicted defendant under the age of 18 when the offense was committed can successfully request for expungement. However, this is preconditioned on the fact that:

  • The individual must now be over the age of eighteen years.
  • The request must be made six months after paying the fines and costs.

The expungement process involves:

  • Filing a petition for expungement in the Court of Commons in the county where the conviction occurred
  • Attending a court hearing
  • Sending relevant documents to specific state institutions
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