In Montana, as in most states, a felony is a crime that carries a potential sentence of more than a year in state prison. In contrast, a misdemeanor in Montana is a less-serious crime that’s punishable by a year or less in jail and/or a fine.
Unlike many states, Montana doesn’t group felonies into different classes for purposes of sentencing. Rather, the laws for each crime state the maximum sentence for that offense (and sometimes the minimum sentence). The crime is considered a felony if the maximum sentence is death or incarceration in state prison for more than a year. In the rare case where a criminal statute doesn’t give the penalty for a felony, the maximum sentence is 10 years in prison and/or a $50,000 fine. (Mont. Code §§ 45-1-201, 45-2-101, 46-18-213 (2020).)
Within the limits set by the laws for each felony, it’s up to the judge to decide the appropriate sentence in any criminal case. For some felonies, judges may impose fines instead of or along with a sentence of incarceration; for certain other serious felonies, any fine may not replace imprisonment. For example, the maximum penalty for burglary is 20 years in prison and/or a $50,000 fine. Aggravated assault carries the same maximum prison sentence and fine; however, if the judge imposes the fine, it must be in addition to the term of imprisonment. (Mont. Code §§ 45-5-202, 45-6-204 (2020).)
If the crime victim suffered a financial loss, the judge must also order the defendant to pay restitution, along with any other penalties. (Mont. Code § 46-18-201 (2020).)
If you’re guilty of a felony and have a previous conviction for the same crime, you will often face stiffer penalties. For example, the penalty for theft of property worth between $1,500 and $5,000 is up to three years in prison and/or a $1,500 fine for a first offense or up to five years and/or $1,500 for a second offense; for a third offense, there’s a mandatory minimum of two years in prison, up to a maximum five years, plus the possibility of a fine up to $5,000. (Mont. Code § 45-6-301 (2020).)
Some crimes that are misdemeanors for a first offense become felonies with second or subsequent offenses. For instance, first-offense stalking is a misdemeanor, but a second conviction within 20 years is treated as a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. (Mont. Code § 45-5-220 (2020).)
Under Montana’s “persistent felony offender” law, a third conviction for violent or sexual felonies calls for a minimum of five years in prison, or 10 years if a previous conviction was less than five years earlier. (Mont. Code § 46-18-502 (2020).)
Montana imposes a sentence enhancement of two to 10 years in prison, in addition to the sentence for the underlying felony, if:
(Mont. Code §§ 45-5-222, 46-18-221 (2020).)
It’s Montana policy to provide alternatives to prison sentences for nonviolent felons who don’t have serious criminal records. If you’re convicted of a felony and don’t have a prior felony conviction, the judge may defer your sentence for a certain period of time and place you on probation with conditions. Once you complete your probation successfully, your case will be dismissed—which means that this felony conviction won’t go on your record. In the alternative, the judge may suspend all of part of your sentence; the conviction will be on your record, but you will serve the suspended portion of the sentence on probation rather than in prison. (Mont. Code §§ 46-18-101, 46-18-201 (2020).)
A felony conviction can have serious, long-term negative consequences. Even after you get out of prison, having a felony record can make it hard to get a job or rent a place to live. It can also lead to harsher sentences if you are ever convicted of another crime. If you’re facing felony charges, you should speak with a local criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can help you navigate the criminal justice system, negotiate a favorable plea bargain if that’s appropriate, and protect your rights so that you can reach the best outcome possible under the circumstances.
Look Out for Legal Changes
The Montana legislature can change its laws at any time, but you can find the current version of any statute mentioned in this article by searching the Montana Code. Still, it’s worth pointing out that court opinions can affect how laws are interpreted and applied—another good reason to talk to a lawyer whenever you're concerned about actual or potential criminal charges.