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felony

felony

[fel-uh-nee]
felony, any grave crime, in contrast to a misdemeanor, that is so declared in statute or was so considered in common law. In early English law a felony was a heinous act that canceled the perpetrator's feudal rights and forfeited his lands and goods to the king, thus depriving his prospective heirs of their inheritance. The accused might be tried by an appeal of felony, i.e., personal combat with his accuser, the losing party to be adjudged a felon (see ordeal). The appeal of felony was gradually replaced by rational modes of trial and was altogether abolished in England in 1819. In addition to the forfeiture of his property, the convicted felon usually suffered death, long imprisonment, or banishment. Death was an especially common English penalty in the 18th and the early 19th cent. To the list of common-law felonies—including murder, rape, theft, arson, and suicide—many others were added by statute. With the abolition of forfeitures in England in 1870 the felony acquired essentially its modern character. Felony is used in various senses in the United States. In federal law, any crime punishable by death or more than one year's imprisonment is a felony. This definition is followed in some states; in others the common-law definition is retained, or else statutes specifically label certain crimes as felonies. Other possible consequences of committing a felony are loss of the rights of citizenship, deportation if the felon is an alien, and liability to a more severe sentence for successive offenses. Felonies are usually tried by jury, and in some states the accused must first have been indicted by a grand jury.

In Anglo-American law, two categories of criminal offense. A crime is classed as one or the other according to its seriousness. In U.S. law, a felony is typically defined as a crime punishable by a term of imprisonment of not less than one year. Misdemeanours are often defined as offenses punishable only by fines or by short terms of imprisonment in local jails. Crimes in Britain are classified into indictable offenses (which may be tried by a jury) and summary offenses (which may be tried by a judge without juries). Codes in Europe also distinguish offenses of greater dangerousness from lesser crimes.

Learn more about felony and misdemeanour with a free trial on Britannica.com.

In common law legal systems, a felony is a serious crime, often contrasted with a misdemeanor. In the U.S. legal system, this distinction is principally made in criminal law, wherein the Federal government considers a misdemeanor crime punishable with five days to a year in jail, and a felony crime as punishable with a year or more in prison; infractions, lesser crimes, are punishable with five days or less jail time, or no jail time.

Most common law jurisdictions have abolished the distinction between felony and misdemeanor, (e.g. Crimes Act 1958 (Vic., Australia) s. 332B(1), Crimes Act 1900 (NSW., Australia) s. 580E(1)). Such jurisdictions have adopted other classifications, e.g. in Canada, Australia, Republic of Ireland, and the U.K., a crime is either a summary offence or an indictable offence.

United States

In the United States, a felony is a higher category of criminal offenses, different from a misdemeanor, which is a category of less serious offenses; (some states eliminated the felony/misdemeanor distinction; e.g. N.J. classifies offenses as first-degree through fourth-degree. A third-degree offense is punishable with six-to-eighteen months in jail. Some states subdivide felonies into "classes", class A through J or Class 1 through 7.)

What is a felony and who commits one?

Crimes commonly considered to be felonies include, but are not limited to: aggravated assault and/or battery, arson, burglary, illegal drug abuse/sales, embezzlement, grand theft, treason, espionage, racketeering, robbery, murder, rape, kidnapping and fraud.

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 or not there is intent to use the weapon.

"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).

In some states, felonies are also classified (class A, B, etc.) according to their seriousness. In New York State, the classes of felonies are E, D, C, B, A-II, and A-I (the most severe). 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; this avoids the necessity of defining specific sentences for every possible crime.

Punishment

A felony may be punishable with imprisonment for one or more years or death in the case of the most serious felonies, such as murder, treason, and espionage; indeed, at common law when the British and American legal systems divorced in 1776, felonies were crimes for which the punishment was either death or forfeiture of property. In modern times, felons can receive punishments which range in severity; from probation, to imprisonment, to execution for premeditated murder or other serious crimes. In the United States felons often face additional consequences, such as the loss of voting rights in many states; exclusion from certain lines of work and difficulty in finding a job in others; prohibition from obtaining certain licenses; exclusion from purchase and possession of firearms, ammunition and body armour; and ineligibility to run for or be elected to public office. In addition, some states consider a felony conviction to be grounds for an uncontested divorce. These, among other losses of privileges not included explicitly in sentencing, are known as collateral consequences of criminal charges. Finally if a felon is not a U.S. citizen, that person may be subject to deportation after sentencing is complete.

Civil sanctions imposed on United States citizens convicted of a felony in many states include the loss of competence to serve on a grand or petit jury or to vote in elections even after release from prison. While controversial, these disabilities are explicitly sanctioned by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a Reconstruction-era amendment that deals with permissible state regulation of voting rights.

Expungement

For state law convictions, expungement is determined by the law of the state. Few states do not allow expungement, regardless of the offense.

Federal law does not have any provisions for persons convicted of felonies in a federal United States district court to apply to have their record expunged. 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.

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