Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Petty Offense Definition:

A minor crime and for which the punishment is usually just a small fine or short term of imprisonment.

Related Terms: Summary Conviction Offence, Misdemeanor, Felony

A minor crime and for which the punishment is usually just a small fine or short term of imprisonment.

The characterization of a petty offense was essential, though, in some regards, most notably because a person charged with a petty offence did not have the right to a trial by jury. The category evolved from English law which developed summary trials without juries for offences such as swearing, drunkenness and vagrancy.

In Duncan v the State of Louisiana, the Supreme Court of United States (Justice White) recognized that "the boundaries of the petty offense category have always been ill-defined, if not ambulatory" and then chose this threshold:

"[A] crime punishable by two years in prison is, based on past and contemporary standards in this country, a serious crime and not a petty offense."

At this time, a petty offence is defined in the United States Code, Title 18, §1(19) as any offence for which the penalty is a fine of not greater than $5,000.

In the 1996 case before the United States Supreme Court, in Lewis v US, Justice O'Connor used these words:

"To determine whether an offense is properly characterized as petty, courts at one time looked to the nature of the offense and whether it was triable by a jury at common law. Such determinations became difficult, because many statutory offenses lack common-law antecedents. Therefore, more recently, we have instead sought objective indications of the seriousness with which society regards the offense.

"Now, to determine whether an offense is petty, we consider the maximum penalty attached to the offense. This criterion is considered the most relevant with which to assess the character of an offense, because it reveals the legislature's judgment about the offense's severity. The judiciary should not substitute its judgment as to seriousness for that of a legislature, which is far better equipped to perform the task.

"In evaluating the seriousness of the offense, we place primary emphasis on the maximum prison term authorized. While penalties such as probation or a fine may infringe on a defendant's freedom, the deprivation of liberty imposed by imprisonment makes that penalty the best indicator of whether the legislature considered an offense to be petty or serious. An offense carrying a maximum prison term of six months or less is presumed petty, unless the legislature has authorized additional statutory penalties so severe as to indicate that the legislature considered the offense serious...."

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