What Is a Felony?

By Teo Spengler - Updated April 16, 2018
Criminal in handcuffs

Crimes come in two sizes, small and extra large. The big ones are termed felonies, while the lesser crimes are called misdemeanors. You may think that the divide between the two crime categories is deep and wide, with murders and atrocities on the felony side and petty offenses like shoplifting a candy bar on the other. But that is far from the truth. In fact, in some states the very same misdeed can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

Tip

A felony is a crime that carries a potential penalty of at least one year in state or federal prison.

What Is a Felony?

A felony is the more serious category of crime under state laws and in the federal criminal justice system. Murder, rape and arson are all felonies, as are armed robbery, treason and grand theft. In yesteryear, felonies were defined as being crimes involving moral turpitude, which means violating a society's moral laws. Today, most jurisdictions do not define a bad act as a felony based on its immoral, gruesome or brutal nature. Rather, the usual definition of a felony is any crime that carries a punishment of at least a year in state or federal prison. A crime that is punishable by less than a year in jail is termed a misdemeanor.

Curiously, some acts can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors. In California, these are called "wobblers," and the list is quite long. Wobblers include sex crimes, types of fraud and acts of domestic violence. Usually the prosecutor decides whether to charge a wobbler offense as a felony or a misdemeanor. But the judge can sentence a wobbler offense as a misdemeanor even if it was initially charged as a felony.

What Is Felony Conviction?

Once a person is charged with committing a felony and pleads innocent, a trial is scheduled. The accused has the right to an attorney and also the right to request a jury trial. If the accused is found guilty of the felony, it is called a felony conviction. Even if the accused pleads guilty to a felony, it is still a felony conviction.

A felony conviction has far-reaching consequences in a person's life. In many states, even after a person convicted of a felony is released from jail, he cannot own a gun or hold a job in law enforcement or various other professions. He may not be permitted to get public social benefits and housing assistance, travel abroad, vote or serve on a jury.

List of Felonies

The list of crimes that are felonies is a very long one and probably includes most of the crimes you read about in the news. These are 20 of the most common felonies:

  • drug violations
  • driving while intoxicated
  • property crimes like burglary or arson
  • theft
  • assault
  • disorderly conduct
  • liquor law violations
  • violent crimes like murder and rape
  • public drunkenness
  • aggravated assault
  • burglary
  • vandalism
  • fraud
  • weapons violations
  • curfew laws
  • robbery
  • domestic violence and child abuse
  • buying and receiving stolen property
  • motor vehicle theft
  • forgery and counterfeiting

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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