petty offense | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Law

A petty offense is a minor legal violation that is less serious than a misdemeanor, typically resulting in a small fine.

Petty offenses, above all, are considered the least serious type of crime. If you imagine a ladder of crime seriousness, these would be at the very bottom. Both misdemeanors and felonies are more severe, with felonies being at the top of this ladder.

Examples of these offenses include jaywalking, littering, or minor traffic violations like speeding. After all, these offenses cause little harm, but they can disrupt order in a community. They typically do not result in jail time. Instead, the punishment is often a small fine.

Differences Between Petty Offenses, Misdemeanors, and Felonies

Understanding these offenses requires a comparison to misdemeanors and felonies. Both misdemeanors and felonies are more serious. A misdemeanor, for instance, could include crimes like shoplifting or vandalism. Felonies, on the other hand, cover crimes like murder or burglary.

Misdemeanors can result in jail time, while felonies can lead to long prison sentences. After a person commits a petty offense, though, they usually only have to pay a fine. After that, they are free to go.

Importance of Petty Offenses in Criminal Justice

Despite their low severity, petty offenses are still crucial in the criminal justice system. One reason is that they help maintain order in society. For instance, minor traffic offenses ensure drivers follow rules and avoid accidents. Accordingly, these laws help maintain a peaceful, orderly society.

Additionally, sometimes they can escalate into more serious crimes. A small dispute might lead to a physical fight, turning a petty offense into a misdemeanor or even a felony. Therefore, addressing them can prevent more severe crimes from happening in the first place.


All in all, even though these offenses are the least severe type of crime, they still matter. They maintain societal order and prevent more serious crimes. So, whether a crime is a petty offense, a misdemeanor, or a felony, the law takes it seriously. And that’s what the criminal justice system is all about—keeping society safe and orderly.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 07/25/2023

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