What Is a Felony?

by Team eLocal
Jail cell with selective focus on bars.

Crimes in the U.S. are generally classified as misdemeanors or felonies. Misdemeanors are typically regarded as petty crimes, but felonies are far more serious. However, not every crime fits neatly into a category.

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What Is the Definition of a Felony?

Felony definitions change based on what country you're in, but in the U.S., a felony is defined as a crime that's punishable with a jail sentence of at least one year. This definition is based on the potential sentencing for the crime, not the actual sentence, so a crime that could've resulted in a year of imprisonment but only resulted in a month is still classified as a felony.

Not all states use the same basis for classifying felonies. Some take the severity of the crime, the context in which it took place and details about the crime into account.

Examples of Felonies

There are a lot of crimes that can be classified as felonies. They can typically be sorted into three main categories: violent, nonviolent and white-collar crimes.

Violent Felonies

  • Murder
  • Sexual assault
  • Arson
  • Manslaughter
  • Animal cruelty
  • Kidnapping
  • Aggravated assault and battery

Nonviolent Felonies

  • Burglary
  • Robbery
  • Grand larceny
  • Impersonation of law enforcement officials
  • Manufacture and sale of drugs
  • Obstruction

White-Collar Felonies

White-collar crimes are offenses that are typically financially motivated.

  • Forgery
  • Blackmail
  • Tax evasion
  • Fraud
  • Identity theft
  • Money laundering

Crimes Classified as Felonies Based on Circumstance

Not all felony definitions are cut and dry. Some crimes are defined as felonies based on the circumstances in which they occurred. Wage theft is considered a first-degree felony if the amount stolen exceeds $100,000. Driving under the influence of alcohol can be classified as a felony in some states if it isn't the first offense. Possession of drugs may be a felony, depending on the amount.

There are a variety of punishments that can come with felony charges, depending on the severity of the crime and the intent of the perpetrator. Typically, the minimum sentence is one year in prison, but the terms of imprisonment can be massively different. First-degree murder charges, for example, can carry a sentence of 25 years to life. In some states, those convicted of first-degree murder can be sentenced to capital punishment, also known as the death sentence.

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