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Understanding the Nature and Consequences of a Felony Charge

What Makes a Felony Different from Other Crimes?

FeloniesWithin the American criminal justice system, crimes are generally categorized as infractions, misdemeanors, or felonies, based on the perceived severity of the offense (though some states, such as New Jersey and Maine, do not use the term “felony”). The most serious crimes are identified as felonies, and they typically carry the harshest penalties.

What Is a Felony?

The term “felony” refers to a serious crime for which the defendant can be sentenced to more than one year in prison. Furthermore, when serving a sentence for a felony, a person is typically incarcerated in a state or federal prison, rather than a local or county jail.

How Does a Felony Differ from Other Types of Crimes?

There are many ways that felony charges differ from those of other criminal prosecutions:

  • A felony charge can subject you to immediate arrest and detention and oftens require that you post bail in order to be released. Charges for misdemeanors (but not mere infractions) may subject you to arrest and detention, too.
  • In those states where it is allowed, a convicted felon may receive the death penalty. Capital punishment is not allowed for misdemeanor convictions.
  • If you are charged with a felony but cannot afford legal counsel, you can petition the court to appoint an attorney to represent you pro bono (at no cost to you). Defendants in misdemeanor proceedings generally do not have the right to court-appointed legal representation.
  • The fines levied for conviction of a felony can be substantially higher than those for an infraction or a misdemeanor. While some states, such as Alaska, may assess fines as large as $25,000 for some misdemeanor convictions, felony convictions can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
  • Felony convictions are far more difficult, or even impossible, to expunge, and you typically must wait a longer period of time before you can ask the court for expungement.
  • Though conviction for a misdemeanor may result in a period of probation after a sentence is fully served, conviction on felony charges imposes probation as well as additional lifelong restrictions:
    • A convicted felon may lose the right to vote.
    • A convicted felon may not be able to hold public office.
    • A convicted felon may be prevented from owning firearms or certain other weapons.
    • A convicted felon may be prohibited from holding a professional license.
  • In all federal felony prosecutions, a grand jury must be convened, and the grand jury must issue an indictment. Some states, but not all, also require an indictment from a grand jury in order to proceed with a felony trial.

What Crimes Are Typically Charged as Felonies?

A wide array of criminal wrongs are almost always charged as felonies:

  • Violent crimes
    • Homicide offenses, including first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter
    • Robbery—committing a theft through the threat or use of force
    • Burglary—entering a building or home with the intention of committing a theft offense
  • Serious sexual offenses, such as rape, human trafficking, child molestation, and child pornography
  • Serious drug crimes, including manufacturing or cultivating controlled substances, distribution, sale, and trafficking
  • Property crimes, including malicious destruction, arson, misappropriation of property, and grand theft
  • White collar crimes, such as fraud, misrepresentation, identity theft, embezzlement, securities fraud, and tax evasion

Can the Same Criminal Act Be Prosecuted as a Misdemeanor or a Felony?

Yes, there are situations where a misdemeanor can rise to the level of a felony and be charged as such:

  • If the defendant is a repeat offender, statutes often allow prosecutors the discretion to file either misdemeanor or felony charges. This practice is fairly common with repeat DUI/DWI offenders.
  • A crime that is otherwise a misdemeanor might be charged as a felony if the victim belongs to a designated category, such as being a minor, having mental challenges, or being a law enforcement officer or similar public official.
  • Some crimes can be a misdemeanor or felony depending on whether the actions of the defendant are considered aggravated or done with wanton disregard for the value of human life. For example, simple assault can become felony assault if the defendant used a firearm or other weapon.

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