In the U.S. justice system, all legal cases fall into one of two categories: civil or criminal. Civil law involves the relations between individual citizens and their rights and responsibilities. For example, a property dispute between neighbors would be considered a civil case.
On the other hand, criminal law deals with the violation of criminal statutes. In a criminal case, prosecutors pursue charges against the presumed perpetrator, also referred to as a defendant.
Generally speaking, all criminal cases will fall into one of two categories: felony or misdemeanor. The difference between these classifications lies in the nature of the crime committed and the maximum punishment that it may carry.
A felony charge usually involves a serious crime that can result in the death penalty or a prison sentence of more than one year. A misdemeanor, then, is basically any crime that does not constitute a felony. A misdemeanor may carry a maximum prison sentence of one year or less.
A felony charge that carries the death penalty as a possible sentence also is referred to as a capital offense.
Under the U.S. Constitution, individual states are afforded the right to adopt their own penal codes and determine what actions are considered crimes as well as what punishments those crimes may incur. However, federal prosecutors reserve the right to bring charges in cases where a crime has been committed on federal property or in more than one state.
In some cases, a crime may violate state and federal laws. In these instances, both the state and federal governments may bring charges against the defendant.