Felony meaning in law

Felony is the classification of the most serious types of crimes. Covering a wide range of criminal acts, felonies often involve crimes involving physical harm, or large scale theft and fraud. Punishment for these types of crimes often includes imprisonment, the length of which is defined in each state’s penal codes.  To explore this concept, consider the following felony definition.

Definition of Felony

  1. noun.  A crime, such as murder, burglary, or arson, of a more serious character, than a misdemeanor.

Origin     1250-1300   Middle English felonie


Felony vs. Misdemeanor

Each state defines crimes as either misdemeanors or felonies, according to the seriousness of the crime as defined by statute. The primary differences between the two are:

  • Prison or jail time: Felonies carry a potential prison sentence, whereas misdemeanors often involve incarceration in a local jail.
  • Length of incarceration: Generally, misdemeanor sentences are no longer than one year in jail. Felony sentences, however, are longer and some may even result in the death penalty if the state allows.
  • Post-conviction consequences:A person with a felony conviction may suffer long-term consequences due to the felony charges appearing on their criminal record. These include losing the right to vote, possess firearms, and to hold certain jobs or positions. Many employers refuse to hire convicted felons. By contrast, those with a misdemeanor conviction generally find the long-term consequences not to be as severe.

In some cases, a misdemeanor charge may be upgraded to a felony once the court has taken into account the offender’s previous criminal history, or the particular circumstances of the crime. For example, Joe steals a bike from Bob and is originally charged with misdemeanor theft. During the course of further investigation it is discovered, however, that Joe punched Bob during the incident, breaking his nose. This crime is then upgraded to a felony.

What is a Felony

While some crimes may be either misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the exact circumstances, others result in felony charges regardless. Here are some felony examples:

The above list of felonies is by no means complete.  There are other felonies depends on the circumstances and states.

Violent and Nonviolent Felonies

While most crimes involving violence are considered felonies, not all felonies involve violence. These two types of felony are looked at differently by the court, especially when considering past crimes in conviction and sentencing.

Violent Felonies

Violent felonies often contain the use of force or threat against a person, though some states consider violence against property to be a violent felony. Some incidents in which there was no actual violence may garner a felony charge because of an intent to commit violence. For example, Ron carries a gun into a school hidden in his jacket. Ron is arrested without further incident, but the possession of a firearm in a school, especially when accompanied by other circumstances, may be charged as a felony.

Nonviolent Felonies

Many crimes have nothing to do with violence, though are felt to put the public in some other risk of harm, often of a financial nature. Such crimes include grand larceny, tax evasion, money laundering, and fraud.

Felony Degrees

Common law and statutes in most states divide felonies into first through fourth degree felonies, each carrying increasing penalties, and are specifically outlined in the state’s criminal codes. Felonies by degree may include the following, though the exact list varies from state to state:

  • First-degree felony: murder, rape, kidnapping, arson, fraud
  • Second-degree felony: aggravated assault, felony assault, arson, manslaughter, possession of a controlled substance, child molestation
  • Third-degree felony: assault and battery, elder abuse, transmission of pornography, driving under the influence, fraud, arson
  • Fourth-degree felony: involuntary manslaughter, burglary, larceny, resisting arrest

Felony Classes

Some states use a lettering system rather than the numeric system for classifying felonies.  For example, the state of Missouri’s criminal codes classify felonies as Class A, Class B, Class C, or Class D. A “Class A felony” is equivalent to a 1st degree felony; a “Class B felony” is equivalent to a 2nd degree felony; a “Class C” is equivalent to a 3rd degree felony; and a “Class D” felony is the equivalent of a 4th degree felony.

Felony Sentencing by Degree

Each state’s statutes provide certain guidelines for handing down sentences felony offenses. Sentences are based on the degree or class of the crime, and the offender may be sentenced to any punishment that falls within the guidelines.

Generally speaking, prison sentences range from:

  • First-degree felony: 3 to 11 years
  • Second-degree felony: 2 to 8 years
  • Third-degree felony: 9 months to 5 years
  • Fourth degree felony: 6 to 18 months

Fines by Felony Degree

Aside from a prison sentence, a person convicted of a felony may also be ordered to make restitution to the victim or family of the victim, for property loss and medical expenses for losses suffered during the commission of the crime. The perpetrator may also face steep fines. Fines allowed by criminal statute often range as follows:

  • First-degree felony: $20,000 or more
  • Second-degree felony: $15,000 to $20,000
  • Third-degree felony: $10,000 to $15,000
  • Fourth degree felony: $5,000 to $10,000

Federal Felonies

Federal felonies are classified differently than the crimes on a state level. The felonies are classified as:

  • Class A: Life in prison or death
  • Class B: 25 years or more in prison: prison
  • Class C: 10 to 25 years in prison
  • Class D: 5 to 10 years in prison
  • Class E: 1 to 5 years in prison

People convicted of federal felonies are also subject to fines up to $250,000 and probation, or parole upon release from prison.

These types of felonies may include, but are not limited to:

Unclassified Felonies

Murder and aggravated murder, the two most serious crimes are generally considered “unclassified felonies.” A person convicted of either of these crimes faces specific penalties as outlined by state and federal laws. For example, someone convicted of aggravated murder in Ohio faces a potential penalty of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years, to the death penalty.

Felony Punishments

Since a large number of crimes fall under the category of felony, the penalties range greatly. During the sentencing phase of the court process, several things are considered, including previous criminal history, and whether or not violence was used in the commission of the crime. Typically, a felony can result in a year or more in prison, and in severe cases such as premeditated murder, the penalty of death may be handed down from a judge or jury. Some other potential punishments include restitution, fines, probation, and community service.

Is a DUI a Felony?

DUI, also known as “driving under the influence,” is a serious crime that may be classified as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstance. A driver may face DUI charges if he has a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 percent or higher while operating a vehicle, motorcycle, or boat. Typically, a first time DUI offender faces misdemeanor charges. However, if a person has prior DUI offenses, or if he is responsible for an accident that occurred due to the offense, he is likely to face felony charges. In addition to facing prison time, fines, and probation, a person charged with a DUI is also at risk of losing his driver’s license. The judge may also order him to complete rehabilitation or educational courses. Repeat offenders are at risk for losing their license for longer periods of time with each new DUI charge.

Causing an accident that results in the death of another person while driving under the influence results in the much more serious charge of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.

Legal Counsel

A felony conviction is very serious. Not only is an individual facing felony charges at risk of spending time in jail or prison, such a charge and conviction stays on his permanent record. Being charged with a felony may also result in much harsher sentences when facing the court system in the future. Felony charges and convictions also hurt job prospects, quality housing options, and rob the individual of his right to vote and carry a firearm. Due to the seriousness of felony charges, an accused person should seek the counsel of an attorney experienced in criminal defense.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – a person facing criminal charges in a court of law or a person being sued by another in civil court.
  • Intent – resolved or determined to do something on purpose.
  • Involuntary Manslaughter – an intentional act that unintentionally causes the death of another. It usually results from recklessness or criminal negligence.
  • Larceny – theft of personal property with intent of keeping it from the rightful owner.
  • Misdemeanor – a minor wrongdoing. This charge may result less than one year in jail.
  • Reckless Homicidethe killing of another person through a reckless act. In some jurisdictions, this is also known as “involuntary manslaughter.”
  • Restitution – compensation made to a person for their loss or injury that occurred during the commission of a crime.
  • Statutory Rape – any sexual activity that takes place in which at least one person is below the age required to legally give consent.
  • Voluntary Manslaughter – an intentional killing in which a person has no prior intent to kill. It is commonly referred to as a “crime of passion.”