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The most common classification of crimes is between mis-demeanors and felonies. The Constitution does not control the definitions of felony and misdemeanor; the distinction usually is made by a state statute, or, in a few instances, by state constitution. Federal statutes define the scope of federal felonies and misdemeanors.

A state statute commonly will define a felony as a crime for which a person may be imprisoned in a state penitentiary (rather than a local jail) or as an offense for which a person may be imprisoned for a minimum length of time (such as six months or one year). The distinction between a felony and a misdemeanor may determine whether a police officer had statutory authority to arrest a person without a warrant, which state court has jurisdiction over a criminal charge, or whether the defendant will be subject to punishment under a habitual criminal statute which provides for increased punishment after conviction for several felonies.

Although the distinction between felonies and misdemeanors is an important one under state law, it is not significant for constitutional law purposes. There are three constitutional provisions, applicable to the prosecution of criminal cases, whose meaning or impact is dependent in part upon the seriousness of the crime charged, not upon the felony-misdemeanor distinction. These provisions are the Fifth Amendment grand jury clause, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, and the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.

The Supreme Court has held that the fourteenth amendment does not incorporate the Fifth Amendment's grand jury clause; that clause, therefore, is not applicable to state or local criminal prosecutions. In Ex parte Wilson (1885) the Supreme Court defined the federal crimes to which the grand jury clause applied as those "punishable by imprisonment at hard labor" in a federal penitentiary. Federal statutes and the federal rules of criminal procedure define a federal felony as any federal offense punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year. A federal felony prosecution must be initiated by a grand jury indictment. Someone charged with a federal misdemeanor may be prosecuted based on either an information filed by the federal prosecutor or a grand jury indictment.

The Sixth Amendment guarantee of a right to counsel in all criminal prosecutions applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court has held that the Sixth Amendment also gives an indigent defendant the right to have the government provide him with an attorney in some, but not all, criminal cases. A defendant convicted of a crime cannot be sentenced to imprisonment for even one day unless he has had the opportunity to be represented by counsel at his trial. The government, however, need not appoint attorneys for indigent persons who are convicted of crimes that in fact are not punished by imprisonment. The determination whether the state is required to appoint counsel to represent an indigent defendant is not based on a felony-misdemeanor distinction. A state is not required to provide counsel to an indigent defendant charged with a serious crime so long as the conviction in fact does not result in imprisonment. Any right to an attorney in a case in which incarceration is not imposed would be based upon a case-by-case due process analysis.

The Sixth Amendment also provides that an accused person has a right to "an impartial jury." The jury trial provision of the Sixth Amendment has been incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment; it governs both state and federal prosecutions. Although the Sixth Amendment refers to the right to a jury trial in "all criminal prosecutions," the Supreme Court has ruled that the accused has a right to a jury trial, rather than a trial before a judge, only when he is charged with an offense that is not "petty." The Court has held that any offense punishable by incarceration for more than six months cannot be deemed "petty." Thus, regardless of the sentence a defendant actually receives, if the defendant is accused of an offense for which there is a possible sentence of more than six months of incarceration, he has a Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury. The Supreme Court has not explained how courts are to distinguish between "petty" and "nonpetty" offenses where the crime is punishable by no more than six months' imprisonment.

John E. Nowak


La Fave, Wayne, and Israel, Jerold 1984 Criminal Procedure. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co.

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A felony, as applied to common law, is any crime generally punishable by more than one year in prison or by death. It is the second in seriousness of the three classifications of crimes: it is punished more severely than a misdemeanor (the least serious classification that covers minor offenses) but usually not as seriously as treason (the most serious classification). Examples of felonies are: assaults that cause serious bodily injury; murder ; rape or sexual abuse in the first degree; grand theft; kidnapping; serious drug crimes; and racketeering.

The distinction between felonies and misdemeanors is not always clear, but generally any crime that has a sentence of only a fine or confinement in a local jail is not a felony. However, the offense may not be labeled a felony, but the punishment may make the offense a felony. For example, a state code could label a crime as an aggravated misdemeanor but provide for a sentence of more than one year in a state penitentiary, thereby treating the so-called misdemeanor as a felony.

Forensic science uses sophisticated laboratory techniques to solve felonies by detecting the presence of substances in the victim or suspected criminal, or at the crime scene. For instance, while investigating a murderous felony that involves a firearm, a scanning electron microscope can magnify objects 100,000 times in order to detect the minute gunpowder particles present on the hand of any suspect who has recently fired a gun. These particles can also be chemically analyzed to identify their ballistic origin from a particular bullet in order to match it with the bullet found within a victim.

In 1987, as an important example of using forensic evidence to decide a felony case, Tommy Lee Andrews became the first American ever convicted of a felony that utilized forensic DNA evidence. During the night of February 21, 1987, a break-in, burglary, and rape at knifepoint occurred at a Florida woman's home. During the next six months, law enforcement officials felt that the same man continued to commit over twenty felonious acts. In one case, Andrews' fingerprints were found on a window of a prowled house. Further, DNA samples of semen taken from several rape victims matched blood drawn from Andrews, while one rape victim made a positive identification of him. With overwhelming amounts of traditional and forensic evidence, Andrews was arrested and tried in court.

Since a DNA sample during the Andrews case was considered new scientific technology, it had to pass tests of acceptability in order to be used as testimony in the felony trial. That is, DNA analysis had to prove to be scientifically reliable in interpretation, method, and theory, and it had to be positively reviewed by peers. Passing all of these strict criteria, Andrews was initially sentenced to a twenty-two year prison sentence for the felonies of burglary, aggravated burglary, and rape. He was eventually tried for serial rape and convicted to a 115-year sentence.

In the 1980s no state had DNA databases, but after forensic evidence was shown to help convict felony lawbreakers, state courts and legislatures began to see how effective DNA was as evidence. They soon began to establish state DNA databases in order to assist law enforcement officials. Today, all fifty states require the collection of DNA samples into DNA databases for certain types of felons. Furthermore, in the first ten years of using forensic DNA evidence, the FBI reported DNA evidence being used in deciding over 6,800 felony cases.

see also Misdemeanor.

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felony (fĕl´ənē), any grave crime, in contrast to a misdemeanor, that is so declared in statute or was so considered in common law. In early English law a felony was a heinous act that canceled the perpetrator's feudal rights and forfeited his lands and goods to the king, thus depriving his prospective heirs of their inheritance. The accused might be tried by an appeal of felony, i.e., personal combat with his accuser, the losing party to be adjudged a felon (see ordeal). The appeal of felony was gradually replaced by rational modes of trial and was altogether abolished in England in 1819. In addition to the forfeiture of his property, the convicted felon usually suffered death, long imprisonment, or banishment. Death was an especially common English penalty in the 18th and the early 19th cent. To the list of common-law felonies—including murder, rape, theft, arson, and suicide—many others were added by statute. With the abolition of forfeitures in England in 1870 the felony acquired essentially its modern character. Felony is used in various senses in the United States. In federal law, any crime punishable by death or more than one year's imprisonment is a felony. This definition is followed in some states; in others the common-law definition is retained, or else statutes specifically label certain crimes as felonies. Other possible consequences of committing a felony are loss of the rights of citizenship, deportation if the felon is an alien, and liability to a more severe sentence for successive offenses. Felonies are usually tried by jury, and in some states the accused must first have been indicted by a grand jury.

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A serious crime, characterized under federal law and many state statutes as any offense punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year.

Under the early common law, felonies were crimes involving moral turpitude, those which violated the moral standards of a community. Later, however, crimes that did not involve mortal turpitude became included in the definition of a felony.

Presently many state statutes list various classes of felonies with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the offense. Crimes classified as felonies include, among others, treason, arson, murder, rape, robbery, burglary, manslaughter, and kidnapping.

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fel·o·ny / ˈfelənē/ • n. (pl. -nies) a crime, typically one involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor: he pleaded guilty to six felonies an accusation of felony.

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Felony ★½ 1995 (R)

Police seek revenge when 12 cops are murdered. Turns out the culprit is a rogue CIA agent, whose spree was captured on video by a tabloidshow cameraman. 90m/C VHS, DVD . Lance Henriksen, Leo Rossi, Joe Don Baker, Charles Napier, Ashley Laurence, Cory (Corinna) Everson; D: David A. Prior; W: David A. Prior; M: Jan A.P. Kaczmarek.

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felony Indictable criminal offence. In British law, until 1967, felonies were distinguished from misdemeanours (crimes of a less serious nature). In US federal law, the distiction remains, with a felony being defined as any crime punishable by more than one year's imprisonment.