Felony Law

Felony law refers to the prosecution and defense of crimes punishable by at least one year in prison. These crimes exist in state and federal court. Municipal court systems typically do not handle felony cases, so if a city police officer makes a felony arrest, the case will be transferred to county court.

Felonies are distinguished from misdemeanors, the latter being punishable by less than one year in jail. It should be noted that felony convictions do not require that a year or more of incarceration actually be imposed by the judge, only that the statute provides for such a penalty. It is possible for an individual to be found guilty of a felony and avoid jail altogether, especially with the help of an experienced attorney.

Types of Felony Charges

To refer to a crime as a felony is to label it broadly. Felonies can be further characterized in terms of the nature of the offense. For example, many serious crimes can be described as violent felonies, because they are carried out using force or the threat of force. Violent felonies include things like homicide, robbery, assault, rape, and so forth. Cases in which the victim is severely injured can be charged as aggravated felonies and can expose the defendant to enhanced penalties. A felony may also qualify as aggravated if the defendant brandishes a weapon, or engages in other conduct that makes the crime particularly egregious.

Drug crimes are another common type of felony charge. These can include charges of possession, use, distribution, trafficking, manufacturing, or cultivation. Whether a drug crime will be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor depends on the weight of the controlled substance recovered from the defendant as well as the defendant's previous history of drug-related convictions. Other types of felonies include property crimes such as larceny and burglary, as well as white collar crimes like embezzlement, counterfeiting, and tax evasion. Felonies can also take the form of "subsequent offense misdemeanors." For instance, DUI is ordinarily a misdemeanor, but multiple DUI offenses in a short period of time may result in felony charges.

Effect of a Felony Conviction

Of immediate concern to anyone charged with a felony are the terms a judge might impose at a sentencing hearing following conviction. These range from the aforementioned one year in prison for less serious felonies, to a possible death sentence for aggravated murders and other brutal crimes. Felony sentences can also include fines, court fees, restitution, community service, counseling, supervised probation, and more.

The effects of a felony conviction go beyond the terms imposed at sentencing, however. For instance, federal law prohibits convicted felons from owning or possessing firearms. The right to vote, hold office, or serve on a jury may also be lost for a period of time following a conviction. A felony record that has not been expunged can also make it more difficult to secure employment, among other things. Felonies that qualify as sex crimes raise a number of other concerns involving registration requirements. A criminal defense attorney can provide details regarding the potential ramifications of a felony conviction under a given set of circumstances.

Reducing a Felony to a Misdemeanor

Defending against felony criminal charges is not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition. With the assistance of a lawyer, there are ways to accept some responsibility for the conduct that led to the arrest, without allowing a felony conviction to be entered. There are deferral programs available, for example, pursuant to which a defendant can complete a term of probation in lieu of a conviction. There are also ways to convince a prosecutor or a jury that the accusations, while true, actually constitute a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

The most common method for reducing a felony to a misdemeanor is through the use of plea bargain. Plea bargaining refers to the negotiation of a lesser charge in exchange for the defendant's guilty plea. Busy prosecutors will often agree to amend a felony to something less serious, if the defendant will agree to accept blame instead of insisting on a trial. And even if a felony case goes to trial, it may be possible to argue a "lesser-included offense" theory to the jury. A lesser-included offense is a crime that consists of some but not all of the elements of a more serious crime.

To understand the concept of a lesser-included offense, consider the example of a defendant charged with felony burglary. Burglary requires that a suspect enter the property of another (trespassing) with the intent to commit a crime such as larceny. At trial, the defendant might admit to entering the victim's property without permission, but not for the purpose of stealing or committing any other crime. This would allow the jury to find the defendant guilty of the lesser-included crime of misdemeanor trespassing, while acquitting the defendant on the felony burglary charge.