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.

  • 5
    The term may vary by jurisdiction. I don't think Canada has "felonies", for example. You might want to specify a jurisdiction. Commented Oct 17, 2011 at 19:53
  • 4
    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. Commented Oct 18, 2011 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.) Commented Oct 18, 2011 at 16:30
  • @Hans: 'commonsensical' (a new word to me but obvious in sense) sounds too much like 'nonsensical'.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 30, 2012 at 17:32
  • Civil offense? Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 14:54

10 Answers 10


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.

  • Similarly, 'offense' works. Commented Oct 17, 2011 at 23:10
  • 5
    @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.
    – ria
    Commented Oct 18, 2011 at 20:38

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.

  • 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.
    Commented Oct 17, 2011 at 19:15
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    @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
    Commented Oct 17, 2011 at 20:35
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    @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
    Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 3:08
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    @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
    Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 13:25
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    @skst - Ha, good catch. I'd imagine ordnance offenses would result in jail time ;-)
    – Dusty
    Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 21:24

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.

  • 3
    That's true in the UK too.
    – Waggers
    Commented Oct 17, 2011 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.
    Commented Oct 17, 2011 at 19:09
  • 1
    @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
    Commented Oct 18, 2011 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
    Commented Oct 18, 2011 at 15:11
  • @ColinFine we in the US had the good fortune to inherit English law and, with it, the idea of "equity", which was developed to protect the less sophisticated from the "clever contrivances" of "well-informed actors". The law itself can be an instrument of injustice (see mortgage crisis), so equitable remedy steps in to help those with "unquestioned right". Equity was originally the domain of the ecclesiastical courts--God's law, right and wrong--which were higher than the king's courts--the "king's law".
    – CWill
    Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 4:43

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"

  • Except that trespass isn't a crime in English law, except in very special circumstances.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 18, 2011 at 14:28
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    @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".
    – ria
    Commented Oct 18, 2011 at 20:48

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.

  • Grand larceny is a felony; theft of under 1k is a misdemeanor. Plus one for the only answer that mentions the word felony. The question on a job application would ask, "Are you a convicted felon?". Google: a crime punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year.
    – Mazura
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 20:44

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.)

  • Strictly, a "summary offence" is one for which there's no right to trial by jury. Rather it can be dealt with "summarily" by a judge alone, or some other official. Many offences that aren't left on your criminal record are indeed summary offences, but at least in the UK, some summary offences are recordable. Commented Jun 15, 2014 at 10:31

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 ...

  • I think it's not what wykroczenie means. I'm not a native English speaker and barely speak Polish, but I come from a continal-European law school. Tort is a part of civil law, as opposed to public law (to which I assign also criminal law). As a consequence, you'll pay damages to the aggrieved party. It's different from not wearing a seatbelt, which is a public matter. You will pay a fine to the state; not a penalty to the car manifacturer or any pedestrian passer-by.
    – Cacambo
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 9:30

If it's the criminal record you want to focus on, then specifically in the UK, offences that are placed on your criminal record are referred to as "recordable offences": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recordable_offence

All other offences therefore are "non-recordable offences". I'm not aware of a single word with that specific meaning.

Note also that we don't definitively say (in the UK) that non-recordable offences "are not crimes". They are crimes, they just aren't on your criminal record. In that sense, the criminal record could be seen as containing edited highlights rather than your full criminal activity. There are certain contexts (such as a military security clearance) where you might be required to reveal convictions that are not recordable, and even matters dealt with by a fixed penalty notice rather than a court.

If it's "non-crime" you want to focus on, rather than criminal record, then things are a bit more tricky. UK legislation talks about "offences", not "crimes", but generally any offence under criminal law can be called a crime. Once found guilty it's a "conviction", again this refers to any degree of wrong-doing that made it to court.

I don't think there's any specific word meaning "naughty things that the law deals with by making a fine or fee payable, but that are not criminal offences". In fact there's some ambiguity in the language, when people talk about "having committed a crime" it's not always clear what they include and what they don't.

Looking at your examples:

  • Some parking violations are offences (parking on a motorway, for example). Sometimes it's merely an action for which the local authority is entitled to charge a fine/fee.

  • Not wearing a seat belt breaches the Motor vehicles (wearing of seatbelts) regulations 1993, which were authorised under the Road Traffic Act 1988. I haven't investigated the details enough to discover whether a breach of those regulations is an offence or not.

  • For a pedestrian, crossing the street on a red light is legal (unless you recklessly endanger traffic, but then the offence is not crossing the street, it's endangering traffic).

  • Drinking alcohol in public is regulated by the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. In certain areas you can be ordered by a police officer to stop drinking, and then refusing is an offence.

  • Failing to complete an electoral registration is not an offence (I think). Evading council tax is, so in practice you have to register your place of residence if you're eligible. The address on your driving license is required to be correct, although this is often flouted and I don't know whether it's an offence or not.

Leaving aside the tax evasion, I don't think any of those that are offences is recordable, and people would generally object to being called "a criminal" based on having committed one of them.

All in all, I think the best phrases for what you're talking about are "non-recordable offence" or "minor offence". But if you want to include things that aren't offences at all then it's more difficult to find a term and even ambiguous what it should cover.


Yes and no. Those "offenses"are against the law. The discretion and degree of offense is the major separator in the language we use to categorize crime. Also if the perpetrator of an act is publicly considered to be a criminal. There are classes and degrees of criminality. Misdemeanor, classes a,b, and c, Felony, degrees of the 1st,2nd,and 3rd. Then Capitol offenses, Crimes against humanity, and now a separate and loosely undefined terrorism category. As far as popular consideration as well as the consideration for such things as employment, and holding public office. Anything below a class C misdemeanor is a proverbial "write off" not given consideration and offenders not usually thought of as being criminals. Accept with continually reappeared offenses, but with more repetitions of the act raises the degree of offense. Anything not caused as criminal by legal statute can still be brought to court for judgement but remains in the public domain.

  • 1
    Hi Pat, welcome to EL&U. This is a very informative answer. One thing that helps to get your point across even easier is formatting. Use paragraphs, headings, and even lists to organize things and catch the reader's attention.
    – Adam
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 5:37

It depends on your definition of criminal record. In California, traffic offenses are still crimes, they are just a lower level crime. Failure to use a turn signal would be an "infraction," while assaulting somebody would be a misdemeanor or felony depending upon how severe. An officer who runs your license can still see every traffic violation you have, so that may be what you mean by criminal record. If it is a punishable violation of the law then it is a crime. Think about probable cause, which is needed for a cop to commit a traffic stop on a vehicle. Probable Cause: Sufficient reason based upon known facts to believe a crime has been committed or that certain property is connected with a crime.

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