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What is the legal term in English for something that is punishable by law, but is not a crime (i.e. does not affect your criminal record)?

I mean all the lesser (than crime) violations of the law, such as

  • parking where is it forbidden
  • not wearing seat belts
  • crossing the street on a red light
  • drinking alcohol in public (in jurisdictions where is it punishable but not a crime)
  • not registering your place of residence (in jurisdictions where such registration is compulsory)

Any violations for which you can be punished by law, but once convicted, can still legally answer the question "Do you have a clean criminal record?" with "Yes", and doesn't prevent you becoming a member of parliament, taking certain jobs which require a clean criminal record, etc.

Is there such a single legal term which unmistakably means only these "non-crime" actions punishable by law, and is not a broad term which just means any action punishable by law, be it crime and non-crime?

The word in Polish language is "wykroczenie", but online dictionaries translate it as "offence". However the definition of "offence" is any breach of a law, so it is not the correct word.

I am looking for the word which would be formally used in the legal code.

Do the US/British/Australian laws even have such a distinction between crime and non-crime offences? I think there must be some, because I don't think a parking violation would go on your criminal record.

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The term may vary by jurisdiction. I don't think Canada has "felonies", for example. You might want to specify a jurisdiction. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Oct 17 '11 at 19:53
I am neither a linguist nor a layman but it seems obvious that your question depends strongly on a) your speech community and b) your legal community. –  Hans Stricker Oct 18 '11 at 16:24
In Germany there's a distinction between Verbrechen (crime) and Vergehen. Also have a look at Ordnungswidrigkeit. (For me - as a German - this distinction looks quite intuitive and commonsensical.) –  Hans Stricker Oct 18 '11 at 16:30
@Hans: 'commonsensical' (a new word to me but obvious in sense) sounds too much like 'nonsensical'. –  Mitch Jan 30 '12 at 17:32
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7 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The definition of infraction seems to fit: the violation of an administrative regulation, an ordinance, a municipal code, and, in some jurisdictions, a state or local traffic rule.

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Similarly, 'offense' works. –  David Schwartz Oct 17 '11 at 23:10
@DavidSchwartz offense is too broad, it includes also crimes. But I have now found also the term "petty offense" being used as a translation of "wykroczenie", which seems more acceptable. –  miernik Oct 18 '11 at 20:38
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So, to be clear, this isn't so much a question about English as it is about legal jargon. English is spoken in a wide variety of places with varying legal systems and the exact terms vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, as do the details of how they're different. Now that I've established that, commonly, there are 3 rough "levels" of law violations.

  1. Felonies - These constitute crimes of 'high seriousness'. In the US federal system and many (most?) states, they result in a prison sentence of at least a year and at least temporary revocation of many rights (vote, serve on a jury, firearm possession, etc.)

  2. Misdemeanors - These constitute crimes of 'lower seriousness'. They can still result in jail time, but are usually considered less serious and don't result in the loss of many rights in most jurisdictions.

  3. This final category is what I think you're looking for, but unfortunately, I've run across many names (varying by jurisdiction) for it. In general, these are things like traffic offenses and such which cannot result in jail time (unless you don't pay the fine, but that's another story). I've heard them called non-criminal offenses, civil offenses, violations and ordinance offenses.

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Not sure about your #3. I've been personally thrown in jail for a minor traffic "moving violation". (New Orleans cops do not mess around.). If you don't get put in jail for such, its is only because the system has confidence that it can come and get you somehow if you won't pay the fine. –  T.E.D. Oct 17 '11 at 19:15
@T.E.D. - Like I said, things vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Also, some crimes can fall into multiple tiers depending on things like repeat-offender status, mitigating factors, etc. However, I wouldn't expect that most people who commit a minor traffic offense to serve jail time. –  Dusty Oct 17 '11 at 20:35
@Dusty the distinction between the "thing" I am looking for and a crime is not whether you can't be put in jail for it or can. The distinction is whether your criminal record afterwards is clean or not. Even in Poland you can in rare cases be arrested (up to 30 days) for a "wykroczenie", but it still won't show up on your criminal record. –  miernik Oct 18 '11 at 20:33
@miernik - what i was getting at though is that there is no standard of what does and doesn't go on your criminal record across all English-speaking jurisdictions. –  Dusty Oct 19 '11 at 3:08
@Dusty Rather than ordnance offenses, you mean ordinance offenses because we're not talking about military supplies (esp. weapons and ammunition). :-) I'd edit your post, but Stack doesn't like edits of less than six characters. –  skst Oct 19 '11 at 13:25
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In the U.S., the distinction is made between civil and criminal offenses or infractions.

An explanation can be found here, and states

The differences between a civil offense and a criminal offense are usually defined by the nature of the offense and the punishment assessed.
Civil offenses involve violations of administrative matters.
Criminal offenses, on the other hand, arise from the violation of local ordinances or state or federal statutes prohibiting certain conduct. A criminal offense can involve a fine, an arrest, or confinement in jail or prison.
Whether the offense is civil or criminal in nature, it will be defined by a local, state, or federal statute.

So basically civil offenses are generally lesser violations than criminal offenses, but the exact deifinition of which actions constitute which types of violations, as well as how they are handled, vary greatly from place to place.

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That's true in the UK too. –  Waggers Oct 17 '11 at 18:30
@Waggers - Quite. In fact, as I understand it, it originates in the difference between the King's Law and Common Law. –  T.E.D. Oct 17 '11 at 19:09
@Waggers: It wasn't true in the UK when I did a law degree thirty five years ago, and I'm dubious as to whether it is now. There is certainly a distinction between civil and criminal law (which, incidentally, is quite separate from the distinction between statute law and common law, and the distinction between law and equity - I don't know what "King's law" might mean), but there is (or was) no such thing as a "civil offence". A civil wrong is a tort - a wrong done to another person - not an offence. –  Colin Fine Oct 18 '11 at 14:25
@ColinFine Good point - "civil offence" is, though, a commonly used term in Britain even if it is technically incorrect. Perhaps you should add "tort" as an answer to this question. –  Waggers Oct 18 '11 at 15:11
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The UK distinguishes between illegal and unlawful.

Illegal means there is a specific law prescribed by the state and if contravened then a criminal offence has been committed / the law has been broken (eg murder, blackmail etc).

Unlawful is defined as "contrary to, prohibited, or unauthorized by law...while necessarily not implying the element of criminality" (Black's Law Dictionary). Unlawful acts can be either a criminal or civil offence. One of the best clarifications of this I've seen is.... "For example, you could unlawfully stay in your apartment after your lease is up (unlawful detainer) but that's not a crime against the state, it's a civil wrong (tort) against your landlord. If the landlord then took you to court and had you properly evicted and you then returned to the premises, you might then be guilty of the crime of trespassing. Trespassing is illegal"

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Except that trespass isn't a crime in English law, except in very special circumstances. –  Colin Fine Oct 18 '11 at 14:28
@osknows: that is not what I am looking for, staying in the apartment after the lease is up does not violate any state law, just violates a contract. I am looking for a word about things which are a direct violation of state law, but not so much to make it a crime. For example since 2010-01-01 in Czech Republic possession of up to 15 grams of Marijuana is no longer a crime, but is still against state law, and can be punished, like parking where forbidden can be punished, but doesn't prevent you from answering the question "Do you have a clean criminal record?" with "yes". –  miernik Oct 18 '11 at 20:48
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Previously suggested 'misdemeanor may be not quite right for your purposes, as it's a "lesser criminal act in many common law legal systems", i.e., still criminal. 'Civil' as in 'civil action' is an adjective rather than a noun; if you seek a noun, it probably is 'tort':

... a wrong that involves a breach of a civil duty (other than a contractual duty) owed to someone else. It is differentiated from a crime, which involves a breach of a duty owed to society in general. ... many acts are both torts and crimes ...

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I'm not a lawyer, and I will gladly defer to any lawyer who enters this thread. But to the best of my knowledge, in U.S. law, if something is against the law, than it is a crime, by definition. There are different levels of crime, like felony (very bad) versus misdemeanor (less bad).

On employment applications, they will often ask a question like, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime other than a minor traffic violation?" The wording implies that a traffic violation is a crime, and so it must be explicitly excluded. (Whether or not this proves anything depends on whether the people who write these questions are knowledgeable about the law.)

There is a distinction between a "crime", which is something that you can be fined, jailed or executed for, versus "tort", which is something that you can be sued for. For example, to take the extreme case, if you kill someone, you can be charged with the crime of murder and maybe sent to jail; the victim's family can also sue you for the tort of wrongful death and maybe force you to pay them some compensation.

With a quick web search I turned up this page from Minnesota: http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/issinfo/cr-offn.htm, which lists the levels of "criminal offenses" in that state's law. They list "most traffic violations" as "petty misdemeanors"; some serious traffic violations, theft under $500, etc as "misdemeansors"; theft of $500 to $1000 and multiple assaults as "gross misdemeansors"; and anyting bigger as a "felony". (I'm leaving out lots of detail -- please don't rely on this as legal advice!) Note that even the petty traffic violations are considered "criminal offenses". In the following text they refer to everything on the list as "crimes".

Update: Just did a little more browsing, and I must retract a step. Yes, here in Michigan, at least, a "civil infraction" is NOT considered a crime. They go into all sorts of definitions of civil infractions having to do with the size of the fine, etc. Some traffic violations are considered civil infractions and others are crimes. For example drunk driving is a crime.

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When I took law in high school (mumble mumble) years go, we learned the term summary offense (or offence) for those types of violations. (Typically, the example given was traffic-related, or anything with a low "dollar" impact - stealing a pack of gum, for example.)

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