A felony is a criminal offense for which a convicted person can be sentenced to serve one or more years in a state or federal prison, pay fines or both. Felony crimes are distinguished from misdemeanor crimes by the possible sentence provided in the statute. An individual can be sentenced to death for a felony conviction in states where the death penalty exists.
Being Charged With a Felony
In some jurisdictions, felonies can only be charged upon a grand jury indictment. When you are charged with a felony, there will be an arraignment in court where the following will usually happen:
- The charge(s) will be read to you
- The Court will make certain that you have an attorney or will be securing one
- The Court will consider setting a bond in which you can secure your freedom pending trial
- The Court will set a date for a preliminary hearing
At the preliminary hearing, the State must show probably cause that a felony occurred and that you committed it. If the State is successful, you will be bound over to stand trial.
Felonies are categorized as violent and non-violent crimes. Each felony will have a degree ranking by a letter or number, and that ranking will determine the seriousness of the crime.
Class A Felony
Each state has their own legal sentencing structures for Class A felony convictions. Punishment for Class A crimes vary according to state jurisdiction, but the most common penalties are a minimum of life imprisonment and/or the death sentence in states that accept certain crimes as capital offenses. The most common types of Class A felonies may include:
- Murder in the first degree
- Felony Murder
Class B Felony
The most common types of Class B felonies include:
- Murder in the second degree
- Rape or sexual offense
- Theft of property greater than $10,000
- Burglary where persons are present and a weapon is present
Class C Felony
The most common types of Class C felonies include:
- Involuntary manslaughter
- Felony drunk driving
- Assault in the second degree
- Armed robbery
- Vehicular homicide while intoxicated
Class D Felony
The most common types of Class D felonies include:
- Felony vehicular homicide
- Child enticement
Class E Felony
The most common types of Class E felonies include:
- Great bodily harm
Class F Felony
The most common types of Class F felonies include:
- Failure to act to prevent sexual assault of a child
- Sexual exploitation
Class G Felony
The most common types of Class G felonies include:
- Negligent homicide
- Negligent vehicular homicide
Class H Felony
The most common types of Class H felonies include:
- False imprisonment
Class I Felony
The most common types of Class I felonies include:
- Child pornography
- Substantial bodily harm
Some states classify felonies ranging from Class 1 to Class 6 crimes, which include Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Kansas classifies felonies by severity levels, with Level 1 being the most serious and ten being the least.
The state of Florida is unique in that their felony classification is as follows:
- Capital Felony—Maximum penalty is death
- Life Felony—Maximum penalty is life in prison
- First Degree Felony—Maximum penalty up to 30 years in prison
- Second Degree Felony—Maximum penalty up to 15 years in prison
- Third Degree Felony—Maximum penalty up to 5 years in prison
A person charged with a felony in Florida, at the time of sentencing g will have a criminal scoresheet prepared by the prosecution, which determines the sentencing range the Judge can impose for the offense. The states of Utah, West Virginia and Texas have similar laws, yet Texas has an additional category known as “State Jail Felonies” in which the punishment is confinement in a state jail for a term of 180 days to two years.
States that don’t use any of the above systems when classifying felonies include Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Vermont and Wyoming.
Felony Cases in Court
Felony cases are usually processed by the following events:
The police arrest the defendant and take him or her to jail. One of three things may happen which are:
- The jail lets the defendant out without filing charges
- The defendant posts bail/bond or is released on his or her own recognizance (“OR”)
- The defendant stays in jail and law enforcement officers transport the defendant to the court for arraignment.
The arraignment is the first time the defendant appears in court. A judge tells the defendant what the charges are, about their constitutional rights, and if they don’t have enough money to hire a lawyer, the court will appoint one. The defendant enters a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest (also known as “Nolo Contendere”), which is the same as a guilty plea, except the conviction cannot be used against the defendant in a civil lawsuit.
The judge will decide if there is enough evidence to hold the defendant over for trial.
The law dictates how soon a defendant charged with a felony must be brought to trial. The trial must start within 60 days of the arraignment. Before the trial starts, the lawyers choose a jury.
A defendant may choose to have a “bench trial” whereby a judge hears the evidence and arguments and decides if the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
State Felony Laws, Crimes and Statutes
Felonies are considered the most serious types of crimes, and each state has different punishments for these offenses. There are offenses that are violations of only federal law that may include:
- Federal tax related crimes
- Violation of federal securities laws
- Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization offense (RICO Act), a federal law to prosecute those involved in criminal activity through the use of criminal organizations
- Federal environmental laws
- Immigration offenses
State vs. Federal Felony
The U.S. Constitution gives all states the power to govern themselves, but when the nation’s safety and welfare is concerned, federal laws take precedence over any state laws. Federal laws cover crimes involving interstate travel, air travel, U.S. Postal crimes, and national security crimes such as terrorism. Areas of law not within the federal jurisdiction are reserved exclusively to the states. Individuals charged with a federal crime do not immediately proceed to a criminal trial. Their case is investigated by a federal grand jury, which looks at evidence and calls witnesses before indicting the suspect or dropping the case altogether. The U.S. Attorney General presents a case and the jury decides whether it should proceed to court after investigating the evidence.
Always Talk to a Lawyer
Since felony classification guidelines can vary widely, it is advisable to seek legal help in finding out what the sentencing guidelines will be if convicted. A criminal defense attorney can help by obtaining information about the specific charges and may be able to get them reduced to a misdemeanor. If you have had felony charges brought against you, you have the right to an attorney who can provide a vigorous defense and protect your legal rights.