In general, a felony can be defined as any criminal offense resulting in a prison term of one year or longer. These are the most serious of crimes. They tend to be crimes involving violence or some other major potential harm to society. Crimes that do not amount to a felony are misdemeanors or infractions. By definition, misdemeanors are crimes punishable by terms in jail no longer than one year. Infractions are not punishable by incarceration.
Felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions can be punished in several ways, including fines, probation, and community service. The punishments for felonies are the harshest – for example, a large fine. Crimes that are misdemeanors are punished less severely; for example, by a fine of $500 – $1000. Infractions are punishable only by small fines.
What are the Main Differences Between a Felony, a Misdemeanor, and an Infraction?
Infraction: You can get this for committing a petty offense, like littering or violating a traffic ordinance. Infractions can require a court appearance and obligate you to pay a monetary penalty (a fine). Some infractions, and their fines, are treated as civil matters instead of criminal ones so they won’t create a criminal record for you. However, whether you are charged civilly or criminally, a judge can issue a warrant for your arrest if you fail to appear in court or pay the fine.
Most people will commit an infraction at some point in their lives.
Examples of infractions include:
- Making an illegal turn
- Failing to wear a seatbelt
- Failing to stop completely at a stop sign
- Public urination
- Public drunkenness.
Misdemeanor: This refers to the class of crimes that do not rise to the level of a felony but are more serious than an infraction. The behavior is criminal, but the level of harm to the public is lower than that of a felony, and usually, no violence is involved. The penalty for a misdemeanor is less severe than what you would receive for a felony. This includes but is not limited to, prison time of less than a year, probation, and lower monetary fines.
Examples of misdemeanors include:
- Minor drug offenses, such as possession
- Minor sex crimes, including solicitation, prostitution, and indecent exposure
- Drunk driving
- Petty theft, including shoplifting
- Minor or simple assault or battery
Felony: These are the most serious crimes, and the action(s) deserve the strictest criminal punishments. Felonies often include acts of violence or intentional acts meant to harm another person. A list of felony examples is included below.
The major distinguishing feature of a felony crime is that it carries a hefty penalty. This includes prison sentences over a year, longer probation after release, and high monetary fines.
Some felonies also carry the death penalty. This will depend on whether capital punishment is legal in your state and the nature of the crime. Currently, capital punishment is legal in twenty-eight states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming.
Some crimes can be punished either as a misdemeanor or as a felony. This will depend on the level of criminal behavior and how your state classifies crimes. For example, there are several levels of theft. Petty theft could be viewed as a misdemeanor or even an infraction. Theft involving a large sum of money or valuable property will be considered a felony. If you use a weapon during a theft crime, it will be labeled as aggravated theft which is also considered felony theft as opposed to misdemeanor theft.
Crimes that qualify as a misdemeanor or a felony are called wobbler crimes. Whether to prosecute a crime under a misdemeanor or felony will depend on several factors, including the case’s specific facts, the age of the offender, the offender’s criminal history, and the judge’s discretion. For example, a judge might label a wobbler crime as a misdemeanor if the defendant is a first-time offender or a minor. Common types of wobbler offenses include driving under the influence (DUI), theft, assault, and battery.
What Are Some Examples of Felonies?
State law and the nature of the crime will dictate whether a person’s behavior warrants felony charges. Some acts may be considered felonies in one state but not in another. Some common examples of felony crimes include:
- Arson, including burning down your own property to collect insurance money
- Many white-collar crimes, including fraud, bribery, insider trading, and embezzlement
- Grand theft, which refers to theft valued over a certain amount (usually over $500 in cash or the same value of property)
- “Aggravated” crimes. These are crimes that were committed with weapons or present other aggravating factors such as lack of remorse, the level of harm suffered by the victim, the fact that the defendant is a repeat offender, hate crimes, and crimes committed by people in leadership. Examples of aggravated crimes include aggravated battery, aggravated theft, and aggravated assault
- Human trafficking
- Sexual assault
- Higher-level drug crimes
- Serious incidents of domestic violence
This is not a comprehensive list; many more things can qualify as a felony. States typically break down felonies into a classification system, generally enumerated as Class A, B, and C. The nature and seriousness of the crime will determine what class of felony the act is considered under the law.
Repeat offenses of the same or similar criminal acts will almost always carry heavier penalties.
Defenses to Felonies
Depending on what felony the defendant is charged with and the laws of the local jurisdiction, they may be able to raise several defenses, such as:
- The defendant acted in self-defense or defense of someone else
- The prosecution has not submitted sufficient evidence to meet its burden regarding proof (that is, proof beyond a reasonable doubt)
- Mistaken identity (someone else committed the crime)
- Alibi (the defendant was somewhere else when the crime occurred)
- Lack of intent. Felony charges require that the defendant had the intent to commit the crime. An individual cannot accidentally, recklessly, or negligently commit a felony.
- Some defendants may use the defense of entrapment against a felony Entrapment occurs when a police officer persuades a defendant to commit a crime, and the defendant would not otherwise have done so.
- For example, if a police officer involved in an investigation convinces an informant to steal necessary evidence, the informant cannot be found guilty of theft. They committed the crime only at the behest of the officer.
There may also be mitigating factors that reduce the severity of the crime. Mitigating factors are any component of a crime or the offender’s past, circumstances, or conduct that may lower their level of guilt, entitling them to a lesser punishment. In the criminal justice system, mitigating factors are considered to give a more nuanced and customized evaluation of the offender and their offense, considering variables that a rigid application of the law may not represent.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with a Felony Charge?
Felonies are serious crimes that can carry harsh legal penalties. If you are charged with a felony, consult a criminal defense lawyer to review your case, represent you in court, and help defend against the charges. Depending on the situation, a lawyer can also advocate for a lesser sentence and a crime to be dropped to a misdemeanor if you are charged with a wobbler crime.