Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Felony Definition:

A serious crime for which the traditional punishment is prison for more than a year, or death.

Related Terms: Indictable Offence, Petty Offense, Misdemeanor

A serious crime for which the punishment is prison for more than a year or death, although the threshold varies from state to state.

Crimes of less gravity are called misdemeanours; also spelled misdemeanor.

Salhany wrote in his 2008 book on Criminal Procedure:

"At common law, crimes fell into two categories: indictable offences which included treason, Felonies and misdemeanours, triable only by judge and jury; and petty offences, which were tried summarily by justices of the peace sitting without a jury.

"The distinction between felonies and misdemeanours was particularly important. felonies invoved more heinous crimes such as murder, burglary and rape and had more serious consequences than misdemeanours. For example, all felonies were originally punishable by death (with the exception of petty larceny and mayhem) and a conviction resulted in forfeiture of the felon's property (to the Crown). A misdemeanour, on the other hand, was never punishable by death and rarely involved any forfeiture.

"A person accused of felony was not entitled to bail but a person committed for trial for a misdemeanor generally was."

In Bannon, Justice Brown of the US Supreme Court wrote:

"The word felony was used at common law to denote offenses which occasioned a forfeiture of the lands or goods of the offender, to which capital or other punishment night be superadded according to the degree of guilt."

Jurisdictions which use the term felony typically define that term within their criminal statute. For example, the Office of the Attorney General for the State of California, in 2007, defined a felony as:

"... a crime which may be punishable by imprisonment in a state prison and/or a fine, or death and a misdemeanor, a crime punishable by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year, by fine, or both."

In almost all American jurisdictions, serious offenses such as murder, rape or armed robbery are felonies. After that, the distinctions become blurred. Some offenses, such as theft, are hybrid in that if the value stolen is above a certain amount, the offense is a felony.

Regrettably, there is no standard qualification of a felony in the United States. Federal legislation has preferred to define a felony in terms of the possible sentence for particular offense. Most states follow this standard  but some classify offenses as felonies taking into account the place of incarceration: if it exposes the defendant to a state penitentiary, it is a felony. If it is subject to incarceration in a local jail, the offense is considered to be a misdemeanor.

In many regards, nomenclature notwithstanding,  the American felony-misdemeanor distinction is similar to that other common law jurisdictions.

For example, Canada has a system which divides crime by severity, referring to them as summary conviction offences and indictable offenses. Canada tends to process summary conviction offenses in provincial courts as opposed to federal courts just as the United States maintains separate court systems for felonies and another for misdemeanors.

This term felony is no longer used in England or other Commonwealth countries but remains a major distinction in the United States.

Historically, in England, the term referred to crimes for which the punishment was the loss of land, life or a limb. Further, a person charged with a felony did not benefit from automatic bail but instead this was left to the discretion of the court on the accused's application. This differed substantially for those charged with a misdemeanor; where bail was automatic.


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