The term felony, in some common law countries, means a serious crime. The word originates from English common law (from the French medieval word "félonie"), where felonies were originally crimes that involved confiscation of a convicted person's land and goods. Other crimes were called misdemeanors. Many common law countries have now abolished the felony/misdemeanor distinction and replaced it with other distinctions, such as between indictable offences and summary offences. A felony is generally considered a crime of high seriousness, while a misdemeanor is not.
A person who has committed a felony is a felon, and upon conviction of a felony in a court of law is known as a convicted felon or a convict. In the United States, where the felony/misdemeanor distinction is still widely applied, the federal government defines a felony as a crime punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year. If punishable by exactly one year or less, it is classified as a misdemeanor. Note that the actual prison sentence handed out has no effect on this; the decision is based on the maximum sentence possible under law. For example, if a person is sentenced to six months, but the charge can be "up to two years", it counts as a felony, in spite of the actual time served being well under a year. Individual states may differ in this definition, using other categories as seriousness or context.
Similar to felonies in some civil law countries (Italy, Spain) are delicts, whereas in others (France, Belgium, Switzerland) crimes (more serious) and delicts (délits, less serious); and still in others (Brazil, Portugal), crimes and delicts are synonymous (more serious), as opposed to contraventions (less serious).
Classification by subject matter
Felonies include but are not limited to the following:
- Aggravated assault and/or battery
- Manslaughter (unintentional killing of another)
- Animal cruelty
- Vehicular homicide
- Tax evasion
- Various forms of fraud
- The manufacture, sale, distribution, or possession with intent to distribute of certain types and/or quantities of illegal drugs
- In some states, the simple possession (possession without intent to distribute, e.g., for personal use) of certain types of illegal drugs, usually in more than a certain quantity but regardless of quantity for some drugs in some jurisdictions (such as Virginia for cocaine and heroin)
- Grand larceny or grand theft, i.e., larceny or theft above a certain statutorily established value or quantity of goods
- Vandalism on federal property.
- Obstruction of justice
- Cheque fraud
- Copyright infringement
- Child pornography
- Mail and wire fraud
- Violating parole, probation, or recognizance bond
- Threatening an official (police officer, judge)
Broadly, felonies can be characterized as either violent or nonviolent:
- Violent offenses usually contain some element of force or a threat of force against a person. Some jurisdictions classify as violent certain property crimes involving a strong likelihood of psychological trauma to the property owner; for example, Virginia treats both common-law burglary (the breaking and entering of a dwelling house at night with the intent to commit larceny, assault and battery, or any felony therein) and statutory burglary (breaking and entering with further criminal intent but without the dwelling-house or time elements, such that the definition applies to break-ins at any time and of businesses as well as of dwelling houses) as felonies.
Some offenses, though similar in nature, may be felonies or misdemeanors depending on the circumstances. For example, the illegal manufacture, distribution or possession of controlled substances may be a felony, although possession of small amounts may be only a misdemeanor. Possession of a deadly weapon may be generally legal, but carrying the same weapon into a restricted area such as a school may be viewed as a serious offense, regardless of whether there is intent to use the weapon. Additionally, driving while intoxicated in some states may be a misdemeanor if a first offense, but a felony on subsequent offenses.
- "The common law divided participants in a felony into four basic categories: (1) first-degree principals, those who actually committed the crime in question; (2) second-degree principals, aiders and abettors present at the scene of the crime; (3) accessories before the fact, aiders and abettors who helped the principal before the basic criminal event took place; and (4) accessories after the fact, persons who helped the principal after the basic criminal event took place. In the course of the 20th century, however, American jurisdictions eliminated the distinction among the first three categories." Gonzales v. Duenas-Alvarez, 549 U.S. (2007) (citations omitted).
Classification by seriousness
A felony may be punishable with imprisonment for two or more years or death in the case of the most serious felonies, such as murder. Indeed, at common law when the British and American legal systems divorced in 1776, felonies were crimes punishable by either death or forfeiture of property. All felonies remain a serious crime, but concerns of proportionality (i.e., that the punishment fit the crime) have in modern times prompted legislatures to require or permit the imposition of less serious punishments, ranging from lesser terms of imprisonment to the substitution of a jail sentence or even the suspension of all incarceration contingent upon a defendant's successful completion of probation. Standards for measurement of an offense's seriousness include attempts to quantitatively estimate and compare the effects of a crime upon its specific victims or upon society generally.
In some states, all or most felonies are placed into one of various classes according to their seriousness and their potential punishment upon conviction. The number of classifications and the corresponding crimes vary by state and are determined by the legislature. Usually, the legislature also determines the maximum punishment allowable for each felony class; doing so avoids the necessity of defining specific sentences for every possible crime. For example:
- Virginia classifies most felonies by number, ranging from Class 6 (least severe: 1 to 5 years in prison or up to 12 months in jail) through Class 2 (20 years to life, e.g., first-degree murder and aggravated malicious wounding) up to Class 1 (life imprisonment or the death penalty, reserved for certain types of murders). Some felonies remain outside the classification system.
- New York State classifies felonies by letter, with some classes divided into sub-classes by Roman numeral; classes range from Class E (encompassing the least severe felonies) through Classes D, C, B, and A–II up to Class A–I (encompassing the most severe).
- Massachusetts classifies felony as an offense that carries any prison time.
- Ohio classifies felonies by degree ranging from first, second, third, fourth, to fifth degree. First-degree felonies are the most serious category, while fifth-degree felonies are the least serious.
England and Wales
Sir William Blackstone wrote that felony "comprises every species of crime, which occasioned at common law the forfeiture of lands or goods." The word felony was feudal in origin, denoting the value of a man's entire property: "...the consideration for which a man gives up his fief." Blackstone refutes the misconception that felony simply means an offense punishable by death, by demonstrating that not every felony is capital, and not every capital offense is a felony. However he concedes that "the idea of felony is indeed so generally connected with that of capital punishment, that we find it hard to separate them; and to this usage the interpretations of the law do now conform."
The death penalty for felony could be avoided by pleading benefit of clergy, which gradually evolved to exempt everybody (whether clergy or not) from that punishment for a first offense, except for high treason and offenses expressly excluded by statute. During the 19th century criminal law reform incrementally reduced the number of capital offenses to five (see Capital punishment in the United Kingdom), and forfeiture for felony was abolished by the Forfeiture Act 1870. Consequently, the distinction between felony and misdemeanor became increasingly arbitrary. The surviving differences consisted of different rules of evidence and procedure, and the Law Commission recommended that felonies be abolished altogether. This was done by the Criminal Law Act 1967, which made all felonies (except treason) misdemeanours, and introduced a new system of classifying crimes as either "arrestable" and "non-arrestable" offenses (according to which a general power of arrest was available for crimes punishable by five years' imprisonment or more).
The Trials for Felony Act 1836 (6 & 7 Will 4 c 114) allowed persons indicted for felonies to be represented by counsel or attorney.
In the Law of the Republic of Ireland the distinction between felony and misdemeanor was abolished by section 3 of the Criminal Law Act, 1997, such that the law previously applied to misdemeanours was extended to all offences. Minister Joan Burton, introducing the bill in the Seanad, said "The distinction has been eroded over many years and in today's conditions has no real relevance. Today, for example, serious offences such as fraudulent conversion and obtaining property by false pretences are classified as misdemeanours whereas a relatively trivial offence such as stealing a bar of chocolate is a felony." The 1997 Act, modelled on the English Criminal Law Act 1967, introduced the category of "arrestable offence" for those with penalties of five years' imprisonment or greater.
The 1937 Constitution declares that the parliamentary privilege, which protects Oireachtas members from arrest travelling to or from the legislature, does not apply to "treason, felony, and breach of the peace". The 1996 Constitutional Review Group recommended replacing "felony" with "serious criminal offence".
The reform of harsh felony laws that had originated in Great Britain was deemed "one of the first fruits of liberty" after the United States became independent.
In many parts of the United States, a felon can face long-term legal consequences persisting after the end of their imprisonment. The status and designation as a "felon" is considered permanent, and is not extinguished upon sentence completion even if parole, probation or early release was given. The status can be cleared only by a successful appeal or executive clemency. However, felons may apply for restoration of some rights after a certain period of time has passed.
The consequences felons face in most states include:
- Disenfranchisement (expressly permitted by the Fourteenth Amendment, as noted by the Supreme Court)
- Exclusion from obtaining certain licenses, such as a visa, or professional licenses required to legally operate (making some vocations off-limits to felons)
- Exclusion from purchase and possession of firearms, ammunition, and body armor
- Ineligibility to serve on a jury
- Ineligibility for government assistance or welfare, including being barred from federally funded housing
- Deportation (if not a citizen)
Additionally, many job applications and rental applications ask about felony history (with the exception of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) and answering dishonestly on them can be grounds for rejecting the application, or termination if the lie is discovered after hire. This is because most bonding companies do not issue bonds to felons, which effectively bars them from certain jobs. Additionally, most landlords do not rent to felons due to the risk of legal liability if the renter commits another crime.
It is legal to discriminate against felons in hiring decisions as well as the decision to rent housing to a person, so felons can face barriers to finding both jobs and housing. A common term of parole is to avoid associating with other felons. In some neighborhoods with high rates of felony conviction, this creates a situation where many felons live with a constant threat of being arrested for violating parole. Many banks refuse service to felons, and some states consider a felony conviction grounds for an uncontested divorce.
In some states, restoration of those rights depends on repayment of various fees associated with the felon's arrest, processing, and prison stay, such as restitution to victims, or outstanding fines.
For state law convictions, expungement is determined by the law of the state. Many states do not allow expungement, regardless of the offense, though felons can seek pardons and clemency, including restoration of rights.
Federal law does not have any provisions for persons convicted of federal felonies in a federal United States district court to apply to have their record expunged. While the pending Second Chance Act would change this if enacted, at present the only relief that an individual prosecuted in federal court may receive is a Presidential Pardon, which does not expunge the conviction, but rather grants relief from the civil disabilities that stem from it.
Felonies (Verbrechen) are defined as a crime that is punishable with a minimum of one year imprisonment. Misdemeanours (Vergehen) are all other crimes punishable by imprisonment of less than one year or by fine.
However, in some cases a severe version misdemeanor may be punished with imprisonment of more than one year, yet the crime itself remains considered a misdemeanor. Same applies for a milder version of a felony that is punishable with imprisonment less than a year.
An attempt to commit a felony is always punishable, whilst an attempt to commit a misdemeanor is solely punishable if particularly prescribed by law.
- Compounding a felony
- Criminal law
- Employment discrimination against felons in the United States
- Federal crime
- Felony murder
- Handhabend and Backberend
- Indictable offence (Canadian equivalent of felony)
- One strike, you're out
- Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)
- Three strikes law