How Small Crimes Get You Jail Time

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on April 13, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you have no contact with the criminal justice system, you might think jail is for bad people who commit vicious crimes. That's not quite right.

Jail is where people often go after an arrest, and it is where people serve sentences on misdemeanors (beyond a year of incarceration is a felony and it's off to prison). But people get arrested for all kinds of things, and some of them might surprise you.

Failure to Pay Fines

Thanks to the efforts of civil liberties and criminal justice activists nationally, there is increasing attention paid to people doing jail time for failure to pay fines. If you ignore a minor court order like paying or appearing on a speeding ticket, you can get in big trouble.

Failure to respond to a court order is basis for a warrant, and with courts struggling with their budgets, the bench warrant for failure to appear on tickets has become pretty popular in many counties and states. In cases where you ignore your ticket and the court order to appear, and a warrant is issued, fines start adding up.

How it happens is that the next time you are pulled over, there is a warrant and you are taken to jail, and now you have to pay added fines and court costs, and so the ball gets rolling. But technically speaking, you cannot be jailed for failure to pay fines -- even if it happens all the time -- and a prosecutor must show that you willfully failed to pay, meaning you chose not to although you had the ability.

Fine Time

Many of the small and surprising offenses that people end up in jail for might not have yielded jail time if they were not ignored. Fail to show up in court and you risk the issuance of a warrant. Whatever you are ordered to do by authorities and you don't do and you don't explain will turn into a major pain.

If you get a complaint about a vicious dog or a nuisance on your property, for example, these things are not in and of themselves punishable with jail time. What is punishable is you ignoring a court order and if you do, and a warrant is issued, you will be in the same kind of trouble as the person who skipped out on their speeding ticket above.

Fishing Without a License

You might be surprised that people are arrested and fined for fishing and hunting without the proper license. This may seem absurd but wildlife fishing and hunting licensing exists in part to protect endangered species and to maintain the local ecosystem. People can and do get caught and in trouble for hooking the wrong fish ... if they don't throw it back in.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you learn that you have a warrant out for your arrest, or you know you have an unresolved legal issue that you should address, consult with a lawyer. Many attorneys consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to talk about your situation.

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