A felony is a serious crime in the common law countries. The term originates from English common law where felonies were originally crimes which involved the confiscation of a convicted person's land and goods; other crimes were called misdemeanors. Many common law countries have now abolished the felony/misdemeanor distinction and replaced it with other distinctions such as between indictable offences and summary offences. A felony is generally considered to be a crime of "high seriousness", while a misdemeanor is not.

A person convicted in a court of law of a felony crime is known as a felon. In the United States, where the felony/misdemeanor distinction is still widely applied, the federal government defines a felony as a crime punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year. If punishable by exactly one year or less, it is classified as a misdemeanor.[1] The individual states may differ in this definition, using other categories as seriousness or context.

Similar to felonies in some civil law countries (Italy, Spain etc.) are delicts, whereas in others (France, Belgium, Switzerland etc.) crimes (more serious) and delicts (less serious).



Classification by subject matter

Felonies include but are not limited to the following:

Broadly, felonies can be characterized as either violent or nonviolent:

  • Violent offenses usually contain some element of force, threat, or against the person. Some jurisdictions classify as violent certain property crimes involving a strong likelihood of psychological trauma to the property owner; for example, Virginia treats both common-law burglary (the breaking and entering of a dwelling house at night with the intent to commit larceny, assault and battery, or any felony therein) and statutory burglary (breaking and entering with further criminal intent but without the dwelling-house or time elements, such that the definition applies to break-ins at any time and of businesses as well as of dwelling houses).
  • Most offenses involving drugs or property alone are characterized as nonviolent.

Some offenses, though similar in nature, may be felonies or misdemeanors depending on the circumstances. For example, the illegal manufacture, distribution or possession of controlled substances may be a felony, although possession of small amounts may be only a misdemeanor. Possession of a deadly weapon may be generally legal, but carrying the same weapon into a restricted area such as a school may be viewed as a serious offense, regardless of whether there is intent to use the weapon. Additionally, driving while intoxicated in some states may be a misdemeanor if a first offense, but a felony on subsequent offenses.

"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 20th century, however, American jurisdictions eliminated the distinction among the first three categories." Gonzales v. Duenas-Alvarez, 549 U.S. 183 (2007) (citations omitted).

Classification by seriousness

A felony may be punishable with imprisonment for one or more years or death in the case of the most serious felonies, such as murder. 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. All felonies remain considered a serious crime, but concerns of proportionality (i.e., that the punishment fit the crime) have in modern times prompted legislatures to require or permit the imposition of less serious punishments, ranging from lesser terms of imprisonment to the substitution of a jail sentence or even the suspension of all incarceration contingent upon a defendant's successful completion of probation.[2][3][4] Standards for measurement of an offense's seriousness include attempts[5] to quantitatively estimate and compare the effects of a crime upon its specific victims or upon society generally.

In some states, all or most felonies are placed into one of various classes according to their seriousness and their potential punishment upon conviction. 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; doing so avoids the necessity of defining specific sentences for every possible crime. For example:

  • Virginia classifies most felonies by number, ranging from Class 6 (least severe: 1 to 5 years in prison or up to 12 months in jail) through Class 2 (20 years to life, e.g., first-degree murder and aggravated malicious wounding) up to Class 1 (life imprisonment or the death penalty, reserved for certain types of murders). Some felonies remain outside the classification system and have
  • New York State classifies felonies by letter, with some classifies divided into sub-classes by Roman numeral; classes range from Class E (encompassing the least severe felonies) through Classes D, C, B, and A–II up to Class A–I (encompassing the most severe).

England and Wales


According to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the English Code made a separation between trahisons, felonies avec clergies, prœmunire[6]and misdemeanours. According to him this names appears enigmatic and do not give any clue on the offence, but only on the condemnation. In particular misdemeanours are those offences which are not in one of the three first categories.

He attributes the opacity of this classification to history, when trahisons and felonies would have Normand and feodal origins. The felonies avec clergies and the felonies sans clergies would have for origins the power of christianism. And finally under the King Edward III prœmunire would have been created by christianism[7],[8]

Then, according to him, this classification had not been changed, as the more fuzzy and obscure it is, the more attorney have liberty in their choice[7],[8].

The Trials for Felony Act 1836 (6 & 7 Will 4 c 114) allowed persons indicted for felony to be represented by counsel or attorney.

A person prosecuted for felony was called a prisoner.[9]

United States

The reform of harsh felony laws that had originated in Great Britain was deemed "one of the first fruits of liberty" after the United States became independent.[10]

In many parts of the United States, a convicted felon can face long-term legal consequences persisting after the end of their imprisonment, including:

  • Disenfranchisement (which the Supreme Court interpreted to be permitted by the Fourteenth Amendment)
  • Exclusion from obtaining certain licences, such as a visa, or professional licenses required in order to legally operate (making many vocations off-limits to felons)
  • Exclusion from purchase and possession of firearms, ammunition and body armor
  • Ineligibility for serving on a jury
  • Ineligibility for government assistance or welfare, including being barred from federally funded housing
  • Deportation (if the criminal is not a citizen)

Additionally, most job applications and rental applications ask about felony history, (with the exception of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) and answering dishonestly on them can be grounds for rejecting the application, or termination if the lie is discovered after hire. It is legal to discriminate against felons in hiring decisions as well as the decision to rent housing to a person, so felons face barriers to finding both jobs and housing. A common term of parole is to avoid associating with other felons. In some neighborhoods with high rates of felony conviction, this creates a situation where many felons live with a constant threat of being arrested for violating parole.[11]

Many bonding companies will not issue bonds to convicted felons, also effectively barring them from certain jobs. Many banks will refuse service to convicted felons.

Some states also consider a felony conviction to be grounds for an uncontested divorce.

The status and designation as a "convicted felon" is considered permanent, and is not extinguished upon sentence completion even if parole, probation or early release was given.[11] The status can only be cleared by a successful appeal or executive clemency. However, felons may be able to apply for restoration of some rights after a certain period of time has passed.

In some states, restoration of those rights may depend on repayment of various fees associated with the felon's arrest, processing, and prison stay.[11]


For state law convictions, expungement is determined by the law of the state. A few states do not allow expungement, regardless of the offense.

Federal law does not have any provisions for persons convicted of federal felonies in a federal United States district court to apply to have their record expunged. While the pending Second Chance Act[dated info] which may change this, at present the only relief that an individual prosecuted in federal court may receive is a Presidential Pardon, which does not expunge the conviction, but rather grants relief from the civil disabilities that stem from it.[12]

See also


  1. ^ 18 U.S.C. § 3559
  2. ^ Doing Justice – The Choice of Punishments, A VONHIRSCH, 1976, p.220
  3. ^ Criminology, Larry J. Siegel
  4. ^ An Economic Analysis of the Criminal Law as Preference-Shaping Policy, Duke Law Journal, Feb 1990, Vol. 1, Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, [1]
  5. ^ Offense Seriousness Scaling: An Alternative to Scenario Methods, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Volume 9, Number 3, 309–322, DOI: 10.1007/BF01064464 James P. Lynch and Mona J. E. Danner, [2]
  6. ^ jail + spoliation Dictionnaire universel des sciences morale, économique, politique et diplomatique; ou Bibliotheque de l'homme-d'état et du citoyen. [Tome 4] / , Tome premier [-trentieme] http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k940839/f566
  7. ^ a b
    • Title : Tactique des assemblées législatives, suivie d'un Traité des sophismes politiques, ouvrage extrait des manuscrits de M. Jérémie Bentham... par Ét. Dumont,... - Règlement pour le Conseil représentatif de la ville et République de Genève. - Règlements observés dans la Chambre des Communes pour débattre les matières et pour voter. Traduit de l'anglois. Tome 2
    • Autor : Dumont, Étienne (1759-1829)
    • Autor : Bentham, Jeremy (1748-1832)
    • Editor : J.-J. Paschoud (Genève)
    • Edition year  : 1816
    • Language : Français
    • Identifiant : ark:/12148/bpt6k5601396p
    • Page: page 201
    • Source : Bibliothèque nationale de France, E*-3842
    • Présentation en ligne : http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb30375784b
    • http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5601396p/f224
  8. ^ a b
    • Title=The book of fallacies: from unfinished papers of Jeremy Bentham, Volume 2
    • The Book of Fallacies: From Unfinished Papers of Jeremy Bentham, Jeremy Bentham
    • Issue 24350 of Goldsmiths'-Kress library of economic literature
    • Author=Jeremy Bentham
    • Editor=Peregrine Bingham
    • Publisher=J. and H. L. Hunt, 1824
    • Original=from the New York Public Library
    • Digitized=Feb 13, 2007
    • Length=411 pages
    • Lire en ligne=http://books.google.com/books?id=KuEqAAAAMAAJ
    • Page=pages 290 à 292
  9. ^ O. Hood Phillips. A First Book of English Law. Sweet and Maxwell. Fourth Edition. 1960. Page 151.
  10. ^ Bradley Chapin (Apr., 1989), Felony Law Reform in the Early Republic, 113, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, pp. 163–183, JSTOR 20092326 
  11. ^ a b c The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (The New Press, 2010)
  12. ^ United States Department of Justice, Pardon Information and Instructions "While a presidential pardon will restore various rights lost as a result of the pardoned offense and should lessen to some extent the stigma arising from a conviction, it will not erase or expunge the record of your conviction."

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  • Felony — Fel o*ny, n.; pl. {Felonies}. [OE. felonie cruelty, OF. felonie, F. f[ e]lonie treachery, malice. See {Felon}, n.] 1. (Feudal Law) An act on the part of the vassal which cost him his fee by forfeiture. Burrill. [1913 Webster] 2. (O.Eng.Law) An… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • felony — fel‧o‧ny [ˈfeləni] noun felonies PLURALFORM [countable, uncountable] LAW a serious crime such as murder: • Citizens had a legal duty to reveal felonies known to them. • He will answer charges of felony. • The U.S. Attorney s Office indicted the… …   Financial and business terms

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  • Felony — Surnom Felany, Violet, Melani, Felicity, MissDemeanor, Mariah Naissance 13 janvier 1969 Phoenix Nationalité(s) …   Wikipédia en Français

  • felony — late 13c. as a term in common law, in Anglo Fr., from O.Fr. felonie (12c.) wickedness, evil, treachery, perfidy, crime, cruelty, sin, from Gallo Rom. *fellonia, from fellonem (see FELON (Cf. felon)) …   Etymology dictionary

  • felony — [n] crime arson, assault, burglary, criminal offense, foul play, murder, offense, rape, robbery, violation, wrongdoing; concept 192 …   New thesaurus

  • felony — ► NOUN (pl. felonies) ▪ a crime, typically one involving violence, regarded in the US and other judicial systems as more serious than a misdemeanour. DERIVATIVES felonious adjective feloniously adverb …   English terms dictionary

  • felony — [fel′ə nē] n. pl. felonies [ME felonie < OFr < ML felonia, treason, treachery < felo, FELON1] a major crime, as murder, arson, or rape, for which statute usually provides a greater punishment than for a misdemeanor: the usual minimum… …   English World dictionary

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