Felony and misdemeanor

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The term felony is a term used in common law systems for very serious crimes, whereas misdemeanors are considered to be less serious offenses. It is principally used in criminal law in the United States legal system. The distinction is not made, or has been abolished, in many other legal systems.

Whether a crime is grave or less serious, a crime is still an act in violation of a public law for which a punishment is prescribed and which is prosecuted by the state, the sovereign, or by private parties. Having different designations for certain crimes aids in the justiciability and punishments of the actions in accordance to human values. However, felonies and misdemeanors are both violations of the law, based on societal norms, established to protect members of society and society as a whole. As such, felonies and misdemeanors are a demonstration of the perpetrator's personal disregard for the society at large, merely on different levels. Punishment is thus adjusted according to the level of the offense.


The term felony is a term used in common law systems for very serious crimes, whereas misdemeanors are considered to be less serious offenses. It is principally used in criminal law in the United States legal system. The distinction is not made, or has been abolished, in many other legal systems.

The distinction between a felony and misdemeanor has been abolished by some common law jurisdictions, such as Australia[1][2]; other jurisdictions maintain the distinction, notably those of the United States. Those jurisdictions which have abolished the distinction generally adopt some other classification, such as in Canada, Australia, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom the crimes are divided into summary offenses and indictable offenses.

United States jurisdictions retaining the distinction between a felony and a misdemeanor sometimes divide felonies into classes, such as a class A felony, class B felony, and so forth. In some cases, what would normally be classified as a misdemeanor can become a felony under certain circumstance. "If a misdemeanor offense as to which no specific punishment is prescribed be infamous, done in secrecy and malice, or with deceit and intent to defraud, the offender shall, except where the offense is a conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor, be guilty of a Class H felony."[3]


What is a felony?

Crimes commonly considered to be felonies include, but are not limited to: aggravated assault and/or battery, arson, burglary, some instances of drug possession (dependent on the jurisdiction, often possession over a certain weight, based on the type of drug, is held to indicate intent to sell or distribute), embezzlement, grand theft, treason, espionage, racketeering, robbery, murder, rape, cannabis cultivation and fraud. A third offense for drinking and driving is also a felony in most states.

Seriousness of a felony

In the United States, a felony is the higher category of criminal offenses, as distinct from a misdemeanor, which is the less serious category of offenses (although some states have done away with the felony/misdemeanor classification; for example, New Jersey designates offenses as first degree through fourth degree. A third degree offense is punishable by six months to eighteen months in jail. Some states also subdivide felonies into "classes," such as Class A through Class J or Class 1 through Class 7 felonies).

Felony categories

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 twentieth century, however, the distinction among the first three categories has been eliminated in American jurisdictions.

In some states, felonies are also classified according to their seriousness. 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.


A felony may be punishable with imprisonment for more than one year 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, prohibition from obtaining certain licenses, exclusion from purchase and possession of firearms or ammunition, 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.

Three strikes laws

Three strikes laws are statutes enacted by state governments in the United States which require the state courts to hand down a mandatory and extended period of incarceration to persons who have been convicted of a serious criminal offense on three or more separate occasions.

These statutes became very popular in the 1990s. They are formally known among lawyers and law professors as "habitual offender laws."[4] The name comes from baseball, where a batter has two strikes before striking out on the third.

Misprision of a felony

Misprision of felony, under the common law of England, was the crime of failing to report knowledge of a felony to the appropriate authorities. Exceptions were made for close family members of the felon.

With the development of the modern law, this crime has been discarded in most jurisdictions (it was abolished in England and Wales in 1967), and is generally only applied against persons placed in a special position of authority or responsibility. For example, prison guards who stand idly by while drug trafficking occurs within the prison may be prosecuted for this crime.

One form of this crime, misprision of treason, was frequently used in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to punish enemies of the crown.

The term misprision can also be applied in some legal systems to a willful act or omission by a person who is involved in or has knowledge of the facts of a crime, which causes in the end result an innocent person to be punished for the crime.

Compounding a felony

Compounding a felony was an offense under common law in England. It consisted of a prosecutor or victim of an offense accepting money or money's worth in exchange for dropping a prosecution for a felony. The offense, which was a misdemeanor, was abolished in England in 1967, although it might still be prosecuted as perverting the course of justice, and the separate offense of compounding treason survives.

Felony murder

The felony murder rule is a legal doctrine current in some common law countries that broadens the crime of murder in two ways. First, when a victim dies accidentally or without specific intent in the course of an applicable felony, it increases what might have been manslaughter (or even a simple tort) to murder. Second, it makes any participant in such a felony criminally responsible for any deaths that occur during or in furtherance of that felony. While there is some debate about the original scope of the rule, modern interpretations typically require that the felony be an obviously dangerous one, or one committed in an obviously dangerous manner. For this reason, the felony murder rule is often justified as a means of deterring dangerous felonies.

Civil sanctions of felonies

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.


Theoretically, federal law allows persons convicted of felonies in a federal United States district court to apply to have their record expunged after a certain period of time with a clean record. However, the U.S. Congress has refused to fund the federal agency mandated with handling the applications of convicted felons to have their record expunged. This means that, in practice, federal felons cannot have their records expunged.

For state law convictions, expunction is determined by the law of the state. Some states do not allow this, regardless of the offense, resulting in class of people permanently lacking many legitimate opportunities. These people can have extreme difficulty finding a job or even a place to live, regardless of qualifications or references, which can result in their return to a life of crime.


A misdemeanor, or misdemeanour, in many common law legal systems, is a "lesser" criminal act. Misdemeanors are generally punished less severely than felonies; but theoretically more so than administrative infractions (also known as regulatory offenses).

In some jurisdictions, those who are convicted of a misdemeanor are known as "misdemeanants" (as contrasted with those convicted of a felony who are known as "felons"). Depending on the jurisdiction, examples of misdemeanors may include: petty theft, prostitution, public intoxication, simple assault, disorderly conduct, trespass, vandalism, and other similar crimes. In general, misdemeanors are crimes with a maximum punishment of 12 months of incarceration, typically in a local jail (again, as contrasted with felons, who are typically incarcerated in a prison). Those people who are convicted of misdemeanors are often punished with probation, community service or part-time imprisonment, served on the weekends.

In Anglo-American law misdemeanors are in the middle range of seriousness for violations of the law. Felonies are the most serious and typically result in automatic forfeiture of some civil rights, including suffrage, and commonly involve lengthy incarceration. Typically, only those charged with felonies are entitled to the right of trial by jury. Infractions are the least serious, are punishable only by fine (and a command to reverse the behavior), and never carry a formal social stigma (examples of violations include parking and minor traffic offenses, late payment of fees, and building code violations).

Sanctions of misdemeanors

Misdemeanors usually do not result in the loss of civil rights, but may result in loss of privileges, such as professional licenses, public offices, or public employment. Such effects are known as the collateral consequences of criminal charges. This is more common when the misdemeanor is related to the privilege in question (such as the loss of a taxi driver's license after a conviction for reckless driving), or when the misdemeanor involves moral turpitude—and in general is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. One prominent example of this is found in the United States Constitution, which provides that the President may be impeached by Congress for "high crimes and misdemeanors" and removed from office accordingly. The definition of a "high" misdemeanor is left to the judgment of Congress.

Within classes of offenses, the form of punishment can vary widely. For example, the US federal government and many U.S. states divide misdemeanors into several classes, with certain classes punishable by jail time and others carrying only a fine.

Misdemeanor expunction

Many states allow expunction of misdemeanor convictions. Once expunged, the defendant can be relieved from some or all disabilities that resulted from the conviction. Eligibility varies by state. The most common requirements are completion of the original sentence, payment of restitution and fines, not serving any sentence or facing any new charges.


  1. Crimes Act 1958 (Vic., Australia) s. 332B(1) Retrieved March 5, 2008.
  2. Crimes Act 1900 (NSW., Australia) s. 580E(1) Retrieved March 5, 2008.
  3. Just Another Statute at Law: Commentary on the North Carolina General Statutes of Interest to the Law Enforcement Community March 1996, Volume 1, Number 1. Retrieved March 5, 2008.
  4. Ahmed A. White, "The Juridical Structure Of Habitual Offender Laws And The Jurisprudence Of Authoritarian Social Control," 37 U. Tol. L. Rev. 705, 2006.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Goebel, Julius. Felony and Misdemeanor: A Study in the History of Criminal Law. Philadephia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976. ISBN 0812210875
  • Jones, Jeffrey C. Felony and Misdemeanor Criminal Procedure. Eau Claire, WI: Professional Education Systems, 1985. OCLC 8557317
  • Massachusetts Sentencing Commission. Felony and misdemeanor master crime list. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, 2003. OCLC 6595570


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