A felony is traditionally considered a crime of high seriousness, whereas a misdemeanor is regarded as less serious. The term "felony" originated from English common law (from the French medieval word "félonie") to describe an offense that resulted in the confiscation of a convicted person's land and goods, to which additional punishments including capital punishment could be added; other crimes were called misdemeanors. Following conviction of a felony in a court of law, a person may be described as a felon or a convicted felon.
Some common law countries and jurisdictions no longer classify crimes as felonies or misdemeanors and instead use other distinctions, such as by classifying serious crimes as indictable offences and less serious crimes as summary offences.
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. The classification is based upon a crime's potential sentence, so a crime remains classified as a felony even if a defendant convicted of a felony receives a sentence of one year or less. Individual states may classify crimes by other factors, such as seriousness or context.
In some civil law jurisdictions, such as Italy and Spain, the term delict is used to describe serious offenses, a category similar to common law felony. In other nations, such as Germany, France, Belgium, and Switzerland, more serious offenses are described as crimes, while misdemeanors or delicts (or délits) are less serious. In still others (such as Brazil and Portugal), crimes and delicts are synonymous (more serious) and are opposed to contraventions (less serious).
Felonies may include but are not limited to the following:
Broadly, felonies can be characterized as either violent or 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 under the influence in some states may be a misdemeanor if a first offense, but a felony on subsequent offenses.
The examples and perspective in this section deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2021)
A felony may be punishable with imprisonment for more than one year or death in the case of the most serious felonies, such as murder. Indeed, historically at common law, felonies were crimes punishable by either death or forfeiture of property. All felonies remain 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. Standards for measurement of an offense's seriousness include attempts to quantitatively estimate and compare the effects of a crime upon its specific victims or upon society generally.
In much of the United 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:
Sir William Blackstone wrote that felony "comprises every species of crime, which occasioned at common law the forfeiture of lands or goods". The word felony was feudal in origin, denoting the value of a man's entire property: "the consideration for which a man gives up his fief".[a] Blackstone refutes the misconception that felony simply means an offence punishable by death, by demonstrating that not every felony is capital, and not every capital offence is a felony. However he concedes that "the idea of felony is indeed so generally connected with that of capital punishment, that we find it hard to separate them; and to this usage the interpretations of the law do now conform."
The death penalty for felony could be avoided by pleading benefit of clergy, which gradually evolved to exempt everybody (whether clergy or not) from that punishment for a first offence, except for high treason and offences expressly excluded by statute. During the 19th century criminal law reform incrementally reduced the number of capital offences to five (see Capital punishment in the United Kingdom), and forfeiture for felony was abolished by the Forfeiture Act 1870. Consequently, the distinction between felony and misdemeanour became increasingly arbitrary. The surviving differences consisted of different rules of evidence and procedure, and the Law Commission recommended that felonies be abolished altogether. This was done by the Criminal Law Act 1967, which set the criminal practice for all crimes as that of misdemeanour, and introduced a new system of classifying crimes as either "arrestable" and "non-arrestable" offences (according to which a general power of arrest was available for crimes punishable by five years' imprisonment or more).
Arrestable offences were abolished in 2006, and today crimes are classified as indictable or summary offences, the only distinction being the mode of trial (by jury in the crown court or summarily in the magistrates' court, respectively).
The Trials for Felony Act 1836 (6 & 7 Will. 4 c. 114) allowed persons indicted for felonies to be represented by counsel or attorney.
In the law of the Republic of Ireland the distinction between felony and misdemeanor was abolished by section 3 of the Criminal Law Act, 1997, such that the law previously applied to misdemeanours was extended to all offences. Minister Joan Burton, introducing the bill in the Seanad, said "The distinction has been eroded over many years and in today's conditions has no real relevance. Today, for example, serious offences such as fraudulent conversion and obtaining property by false pretences are classified as misdemeanours whereas a relatively trivial offence such as stealing a bar of chocolate is a felony." The 1997 Act, modelled on the English Criminal Law Act 1967, introduced the category of "arrestable offence" for those with penalties of five years' imprisonment or greater.
The 1937 Constitution declares that the parliamentary privilege, which protects Oireachtas members from arrest travelling to or from the legislature, does not apply to "treason, felony, and breach of the peace". The 1996 Constitutional Review Group recommended replacing "felony" with "serious criminal offence".
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.
In many parts of the United States, a felon can face long-term legal consequences persisting after the end of their imprisonment. The status and designation as a "felon" is considered permanent, and is not extinguished upon sentence completion even if parole, probation or early release was given. The status can be cleared only by a successful appeal or executive clemency. However, felons may qualify for restoration of some rights after a certain period of time has passed.
The consequences felons face in most states include:
Additionally, many 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. Convicted felons may not be eligible for certain professional licenses or bonds, or may raise the cost of an employer's insurance.
It is broadly legal to discriminate against felons in hiring decisions as well as the decision to rent housing to a person, so felons can face barriers to finding both jobs and housing. Many landlords will not rent to felons, although a blanket ban on renting to felons may violate federal housing law. 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. Banks may refuse to issue loans to felons, and a felony conviction may prevent employment in banking or finance.
In some states, restoration of those rights depends on repayment of various fees associated with the felon's arrest, processing, and prison stay, such as restitution to victims, or outstanding fines.
For state law convictions, expungement is determined by the law of the state. Many states do not allow expungement, regardless of the offense, though felons can seek pardons and clemency, potentially including restoration of rights.
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. At present the only relief that an individual convicted of a felony 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.
A felony (Verbrechen, a word also translated in less technical contexts as simply "crime") is defined in the Strafgesetzbuch (Criminal Code, StGB) as an unlawful act (rechtswidrige Tat) that is punishable with a minimum of one year's imprisonment. A misdemeanour (Vergehen) is any other crime punishable by imprisonment with a minimum of less than one year or by fine.
However, in some cases a severe version of a misdemeanor may be punished with imprisonment of more than one year, yet the crime itself remains considered a misdemeanor. The same applies for a milder version of a felony that is punished with imprisonment less than a year.