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Definition of a Felony

Ogle, Elrod & Baril PLLC
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A felony is a broad term that encompasses the most serious crimes a person can commit. The penalties for a felony are more severe than the penalties for a misdemeanor and, in many cases, different legal rules apply to felony accusations or convictions

Definition of Felony

A felony is formally defined within the United States justice system as “a serious crime usually punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or by death.” This is a comprehensive, but not complete definition since in rare cases a person can be convicted of a felony and serve less than one year in prison. Furthermore, some states classify certain crimes as “aggravated misdemeanors” instead of felonies and these aggravated misdemeanors carry a potential penalty of more then one year in prison.

Generally, more serious crimes are considered to be felonies. The following are examples of crimes that are considered to be felonies:

  • Aggravated assault and battery
  • Arson
  • Burglary
  • Grand theft or robbery
  • Drug possession or sale
  • Rape
  • Murder

Difference between Felony and Misdemeanor

In many cases, the distinction between a felony and a misdemeanor is a matter of degree. For example:

  • Aggravated assault, or threatening someone with serious bodily harm using a deadly weapon, is a felony. Simple assault, or a threat that doesn't involve a weapon, may be only a misdemeanor.
  • Stealing a small amount of money or property is a misdemeanor,
  • Possessing only a small amount of drugs may be considered a misdemeanor as well.

Felony Grades

Some jurisdictions also classify felonies into degrees or grades of seriousness. For example, felonies can be graded on a letter scale (“class A felony”) or on a degree scale (capital murder, first degree murder, second degree murder, etc.).

Why Does The Definition of a Felony Matter?

The difference in potential penalties is an important reason why the definition of a felony is so important. However, since aggravated misdemeanors can carry similar penalties to some felonies, this is not the only important distinction. There are several other factors that come into play that make the “felony” label important.


  • A defendant accused of a felony may have different legal rights then a defendant accused of a lesser crime. In some cases, an indictment by a grand jury is only required for a felony. In some states, a defendant is only appointed with an attorney provided by the court for felony charges. These two factors can have a significant impact on the outcome of a case.
  • A felony has more serious implications than a misdemeanor for certain other legal doctrines. For example, in jurisdictions with a "three-strikes” law, a felony counts as a strike but a misdemeanor does not. That means if you commit three felonies, you could potentially face a life sentence.
  • A felony charge can have a serious impact on potential penalties for related crimes. For example, if you accidentally murder someone while committing a felony, it might be considered first degree or capital murder (punishable by death in death penalty states). If you accidentally kill someone while committing a misdemeanor, the charge is only manslaughter.
  • Penalties for conspiracy to commit a felony are also more serious than penalties for conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor.
  • Finally, greater restrictions may be placed on you after you leave prison if you commit a felony instead of a misdemeanor. These restrictions may include limitations on your right to vote, bear arms, or hold office. If you are an immigrant, you may even be subject to deportation as a result of a felony conviction.


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