States distinguish felony offenses from misdemeanors based on the maximum penalty allowed under the law. In North Dakota, a misdemeanor carries a maximum possible sentence of 360 days' imprisonment. Any crime with a penalty above 360 days and up to life is a felony.
North Dakota organizes felony crimes into four separate categories: class AA, class A, class B, and class C felonies. Class AA is the highest and most serious felony level, and class C is the lowest and least serious. This article will discuss felony classes, penalties, and sentencing in North Dakota.
Under North Dakota's sentencing system, lawmakers define crimes and their felony classifications in statute. That classification sets a maximum penalty. Judges can impose any sentence up to that maximum.
Class AA felonies are punishable by up to life in prison without parole. Examples include premeditated murder and continuous sexual abuse of a child.
Class A felonies carry a maximum penalty of 20 years' imprisonment and a $20,000 fine. Some examples of class A felonies include sex trafficking (of an adult), kidnapping, and murder in the heat of passion.
Class B felonies carry a maximum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment and a $20,000 fine. Class B felonies include manslaughter, sexual imposition, and armed robbery.
If the law provides that an offense is a felony but doesn't specify its classification, the crime defaults to a class C felony.
(N.D. Cent. Code §§ 12.1-32-01, 12.1-32-12 (2023).)
When imposing a felony sentence, judges can order one or more of the following:
Generally, a judge will hand down a sentence that includes a term of imprisonment and then either "execute or stay" the prison sentence. Executing the sentence means the offender will go to prison. Staying a sentence means the judge will suspend the prison sentence and give the offender a chance to serve the sentence in the community on probation.
When a judge stays a prison sentence, the judge conditions the stay (or suspension) on the defendant's agreement to abide by the probation terms. Basically, the prison sentence continues to hang over the defendant's head as an incentive to comply with probation.
Probation can be supervised or unsupervised. Conditions might include remaining crime free, serving a jail sentence, completing community service hours or treatment, abstaining from alcohol or drugs, maintaining employment, attending school, treatment or counseling, or being placed on electronic monitoring or home confinement.
Felony probation can last 5 to 10 years, depending on the offense and the offender's criminal history. If the offender successfully completes probation, the sentence is also complete. Violations of probation, however, can result in additional probation conditions, extended probation terms, or revocation of probation. Upon revocation of probation, the judge ends the stay and executes the sentence.
If the judge orders the sentence executed (either at the initial sentencing or after revoking probation), the offender will start serving the prison sentence. The amount of time the offender spends in prison will depend on the maximum sentence imposed by the judge and whether the offender qualifies for parole.
For most felonies, the judge has discretion on whether to stay or execute a sentence. But the law provides a few exceptions.
Presumptive probation. The law presumes that most class C felony sentences should be stayed (called presumed probation), but a judge can override this presumption if the circumstances warrant it.
Mandatory prison. Some crimes specify mandatory prison terms, including minimums, which cannot be stayed or can make an offender ineligible for parole. For instance, the law requires offenders convicted of certain armed felonies to serve their sentences in prison without parole. These armed felonies also carry minimum sentences of two years for class C felonies and four years for all other classifications.
(N.D. Cent. Code §§ 12.1-32-02.1, 12.1-32-07, 12.1-32-07.4 (2023).)
Prosecutors face time limits for filing criminal charges—called statutes of limitations. Criminal charges filed after the time limit can be dismissed. North Dakota law requires prosecutors to file most felony charges within three years of the commission or discovery of the offense. Longer time limits apply to charges for human trafficking, felony sex offenses, and sex abuse crimes against minors. Murder charges have no time limit and can be filed at any time.
(N.D. Cent. Code §§ 29-04-01, 29-04-02, 29-04-03.1 (2023).)
North Dakota law authorizes expungement (or sealing) of most felony criminal records so long as the person has not been convicted of any new crimes for at least five years before filing the petition. For violent felony offenses, the person must wait at least 10 years following conviction or completion of the sentence, whichever is later. Sex offenses cannot be expunged. Sealing a felony record doesn't make it disappear, but the law prohibits disclosure of its contents and existence without a court order.
(N.D. Cent. Code §§ 12-60.1-01, 12-60.1-02 (2023).)
If you're convicted of a felony, you face significant penalties that can permanently change the course of your life. Speak with a local criminal defense attorney if you've been arrested for, charged with, or investigated for a crime.