Generally, offenses may be classified in three different ways, each of which has its own significance in substantive and procedural law. They are:
- The three-fold classification
- Indictable and non-indictable (or summary) offenses
- Federal and state offenses
THE THREE-FOLD CLASSIFICATION
The three-fold classification of offenses is concerned with the classification of offenses into three groups, according to the severity of punishment prescribed by law for an offense. Under this classification, offenses are classified into felony, misdemeanour and simple offenses.
A felony is an offense which is declared by law to be a felony, or is punishable, without proof of previous conviction, with imprisonment for three years or more or by death. The significance of the use of the phrase “without proof of previous conviction” is that, an offense may not qualify as a felony as a first offense, but may so qualify as a second offense.
A misdemeanour is any offense which is declared by law to be a misdemeanour, or is punishable by imprisonment for not less than six months, but less than three years.
All other offenses other than felonies and misdemeanours are simple offenses. These are offenses punishable by imprisonment for not more than six months. The law creating an offense may expressly declare it a felony or misdemeanour.
The three-fold classification has both procedural and substantive consequences. Procedurally, the following consequences may be identified:
- This mode of classification is taken into consideration when bail application is to be considered in court. The grant of bail to a person charged with felony is discretional, but it is mandatory in the case of a misdemeanour or simple offense unless the court sees a good reason to the contrary.
- The power of a private person to arrest a suspected offender is more limited in the case of a misdemeanant than in the case of a felon. He can only arrest a misdemeanant where the misdemeanant commits the offense at night, otherwise, he must arrest with warrant.
- It is only in offenses other than felonies that the court may promote reconciliation and encourage/facilitate settlement among the parties (offender/victim) in the proceeding.
INDICTABLE AND NON-INDICTABLE OFFENSES
This is a classification of offenses according to the method by which they are tried. An indictable offense is an offense that can be tried on “information” in the High Court, or in some cases, in the Magistrate Court (only with the consent of the accused person). It is only the less serious of such offenses that can be tried in the Magistrate’s Court if the accused person consents to it.
On the other hand, non-indictable or summary conviction offenses are offenses that can be tried in a summary manner, and mostly in the Magistrates Court. Such an offense is tried upon a charge which is the equivalent of information in the High Court.
The classification of offenses into indictable or non-indictable offenses has the following procedural significance:
- It is useful for determining the correct procedure to be adopted in the trial of an offense.
- It is also useful in the consideration of the issue of arrest without warrant; a police officer is empowered to arrest without warrant, any person whom he suspects upon reasonable grounds of having committed an indictable offense.
FEDERAL AND STATE OFFENSES
This classification is a consequence of the federal system of government practiced in some jurisdictions. Under this system, governmental powers are divided between the federal government and the state governments. The law empowers the state to make laws for the peace, order and good governance of the state. Similarly, the law also empowers the federal government (through parliament) to make laws for the peace, order and good governance of the federation.
Therefore, a federal offense is an offense contrary to the provisions of an Act of Parliament. On the other hand, a state offense is an offense contrary to the provisions of the law of a state.