How Criminal Charges are Classified in Canada

September 29, 2022

When you’re facing criminal charges, it’s important to understand how the courts and prosecutors classify criminal offences. This article will help you understand the severity of criminal offenses and what potential penalties you may face. In Canada, crimes are classified into three categories: Summary offences, Indictable offences, and Hybrid offences. While the United States uses a similar classification system by dividing crimes into Misdemeanors and Felonies. Below is a brief overview of the classifications of criminal charge types and some examples of offences that are included in each category.

Classification of offences is important to determine how the case will proceed through the justice system.

Criminal Offenses Classifications in Canada

The criminal code divides criminal offenses into Summary (less serious) and Indictable (more severe), and Hybrid. Most criminal offences are hybrid and the Crown prosecuting the case is allowed to elect to proceed by summary or indictment depending on the severity of the allegations and the circumstances. Some less serious crimes are simply straight summary offences, such as causing a public disturbance or public nudity. Other very serious offences such as murder and sexual assault are indictable.

Summary Conviction Offences

Summary offenses are generally less serious charges and have less severe consequences. Most summary offences carry a maximum of six months imprisonment and/or $5000 fine, but some have punishments that range to as much as 24 months of jail time and/or a $5000 fine.

In Canada available sentence options and punishments are the same across the country. However, regional sentencing ranges and priorities may differ from one jurisdiction to another.

Accused persons charged with summary offences only have the option to have their charges heard by a provincial court judge in the Ontario Court of Justice. They do not have the right to a preliminary hearing or a Judge & Jury trial.

A person that is charged with a summary offence does not need to appear in court until their trial date. A lawyer or an agent may appear on their behalf for most court appearances.

Indictable Offenses

Generally speaking, indictable offences in Canada are more serious crimes that carry far more serious consequences. These would include charges, such as murder, high treason, sexual assault, acts of terrorism, robbery with a firearm, drug trafficking and drug importation. Some have life sentences as possible maximum sentences.

For some indictable offences the accused person is entitled to a preliminary hearing if they choose and have the right to a Judge and Jury trial in the Superior Court of Justice.

Hybrid

The majority of criminal offences indexed in the Canadian Criminal Code are hybrid offences, or as sometimes referred to as ‘dual’ offences. For these offences the prosecuting Crown must determine on the basis of the severity of the allegations if they wish to proscute the charges as summary conviction offences or as indictable offences.

If the Crown believes the charges are not serious they will likely elect to proceed summarily, which keeps the matter in the Ontario Court of Justice. Depending on the charges if the Crown elects to proceed by way of indictment the accused person may be entitled to a preliminary hearing and can choose to have a Judge and Jury trial in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

Hybrid charges means that the Crown needs to elect on how to proceed.

Criminal Offence Classifications Under United States Law – Felonies, Misdemeanors and Infractions

In the United States there are three main classifications of criminal offences. From the least serious is Infractions, then to Misdemeanors, and the most serious are Felonies.

Infractions

These are sometimes referred to as petty crimes or petty offences. They are often violations of local or municipal bylaws, state traffic laws and administrative regulations.

Some examples of infractions include Fishing/Hunting without a licence; Boating violations, Operating a Business without a licence, and traffic related offences.

Infractions are generally defined to include minor offences that are not designated as felonies or misdemeanors and usually have no specification classification of penalty. They are usually punishable by fines and by either probation or prohibition orders and do not involve jail sentences.

Misdemeanors

A Misdemeanor is a criminal charge or criminal offence that is considered more serious than an Infraction but less serious than a Felony offence. They are usually punishable by fines, probation orders and jail sentences.

Many states divide misdemeanors into three classifications: the least serious are Petty Misdemeanors that are usually punishable up to six months custody and fines up to $500. Next are Ordinary Misdemeanors followed by High/Gross Misdemeanors. How misdemeanors are classified vary from state to state. Some states have up to four classes, for example Virginia has Class 1 to Class 4, with Class 1 being the most serious. While New York has A Class and B Class misdemeanors and Unclassified Misdemeanors.

Felonies – Serious Crimes

The most serious criminal offences in the United States are Felonies. They are usually punishable by more than a year in jail. Examples of felonies include sexual assault, murder, manslaughter, organized crime offences and robbery with a firearm.

Under United States federal law felony offences are classified into five classes:

Class A – The maximum punishment for a Class A is often a life sentence (or death); with a maximum fine of $250,000 and the maximum supervised release/parole term of five years.

Class B – This class of offences carries a maximum punishment of 25 years or more; with a maximum fine of $250,000 and the maximum supervised release/parole term of five years.

Class C – This class has sentences in the range of 10 to 25 years; with a maximum fine of $250,000 and the maximum supervised release/parole term of three years.

Class D – This class has sentences in the range of 5 to 10 years; with a maximum fine of $250,000 and the maximum supervised release/parole term of three years.

Class E – This class has sentences in the range of 1 to 5 years; with a maximum fine of $250,000 and the maximum supervised release/parole term of one year.

Implications of Crime Classifications

In Canada, the implications of how criminal charges are classified can have a significant impact on criminal offences are resolved and trials are conducted.

If you have been charged with a criminal offence, it is important to seek legal representation. The classification of offences in Canada and the United States can be complex, so it is crucial to speak with an experienced criminal defence lawyer who can help guide you through the process. William Jaksa is a seasoned criminal lawyer who has represented clients in both Canada and the United States. Contact Mr. Jaksa today if you would like to discuss your case

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