A Big Little Change to Gross Misdemeanors

Minnesota law defines a gross misdemeanor as a crime punishable by up to one year in jail.  At least, for many years it has.  One of the many changes made by the legislature this session is a little noticed alteration to the meaning of “gross misdemeanor.”  Under the new legislation, such a crime is now punishable by up to 364 days in jail, rather than a year.  Surprisingly, this little change can have a dramatic impact for some people.

The impact stems from a provision of federal law.  Under federal law, a one-year sentence can be viewed as an aggravated felony.  A sentence of 364 days, on the other hand, cannot.  This distinction is very important for non-citizens because an aggravated felony under federal law can be a quick path to deportation.  By modifying the definition of gross misdemeanor, the legislature removes this obstacle for non-citizens.

The change was supported by at least some prosecutors around the state as well.  One county attorney even went so far as to write a letter to the legislature supporting the change, noting that the deportation issue created vastly disparate impacts on citizens and non-citizens charged with the same crime.  Legal non-citizens, such as those here on a work visa, will no longer face deportation for gross misdemeanor crimes in Minnesota.

It should also be noted that gross misdemeanors cover a wide range of behavior in Minnesota law, some of which are arguably less serious than some misdemeanors.  Gross misdemeanor level offenses include things such as giving a police officer the name of another person, selling alcohol to a minor, driving with a cancelled license, or being convicted of driving without proof of insurance three times in a 10 year period.

Interestingly, this measure passed the Minnesota House by a vote of 125-0, which suggests that the change was widely supported by both parties.

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