A felony is a serious crime with a punishment of anywhere from a year to life in prison and, in some cases, even death by execution. Felony convictions also frequently include penalties after prison, such as the loss of specific rights, probation and restitution. Additionally, you must disclose a felony conviction if asked on a job or housing application, often making it difficult to secure housing and employment.
Felonies vs. misdemeanors
The U.S. law considers felonies worse than minor crimes, called misdemeanors. A misdemeanor typically leads to less than 1 year in prison. Likewise, some misdemeanor convictions carry little to no jail time as long as the convicted person complies with certain requirements, like court-ordered counseling.
Also, a misdemeanor conviction doesn’t come with major post-imprisonment restrictions. However, depending on the nature of the conviction, the law may exclude a person convicted of a felony from:
- Working in certain occupations, such as health care or childcare
- Being near children or the elderly, a restriction usually reserved for sex crimes
- Owning firearms or knives
- Operating a charitable organization
Notably, the line between a felony and a misdemeanor isn’t always clear.
One interpretation of a fistfight, for example, might hold that it’s a misdemeanor of disorderly conduct. However, another interpretation might classify the fight as a felony assault.
Lawyers often call these cases wobblers, and they work hard to argue felony charges down to misdemeanors so clients can avoid extra prison time and the loss of rights.
10 felony examples
A majority of felonies in the U.S. fall into a handful of categories. The following 10 crimes represent the most likely felony charges.
Offenses in this category include possession, use, manufacturing and trafficking. Drug crimes are among the most common felonies in the U.S. They include cases involving controlled substances like cocaine, marijuana, opioids and other common illicit drugs. Misuse of prescription drugs also falls into this category.
Driving while intoxicated
Driving while intoxicated, or DWI, is the illegal operation of a vehicle while under the influence of a controlled substance. The most well-known cause of a DWI is drunk driving, but drugged driving is also common. If the substance is legal, such as alcohol, your state will have a limit on how much you can have in your system while driving. If the substance is illegal, then any amount could result in felony charges.
Property crimes involve stealing or destroying someone else’s property without using force or threats against the victim. Vandalism and arson also count as property crimes.
Larceny-theft can be similar to a property crime and is defined as a crime of taking or riding off with someone else’s property. It includes offenses like shoplifting and stealing cars or bikes, for example. However, larceny-theft doesn’t involve a forceful act or fraud. The offender simply takes off with goods or money.
Any act that is done with the intention of harming someone is considered an assault. Even if you don’t make contact in the process, it’s still a crime. Some forms of intimidation count as assaults, too, because the act of menacing someone with the threat of violence is also considered an assault.
Liquor laws violations
People selling liquor must comply with federal, state and local regulations. These include having a license, serving only people who are legally of age, not serving anyone who is visibly intoxicated and only operating during specific hours. Violators can face felony charges.
Disrupting the peace is a crime. Yelling, fighting, trespassing and public intoxication are all disorderly behaviors.
Murder, manslaughter, forcible rape, vehicular homicide and sexual assault are also considered violent crimes. These are some of the most likely offenses to carry felony charges because society seeks to discourage them at all costs.
Some forms of assault are considered worse than others. Using a weapon is an obvious example. Hate crimes and other attacks on protected groups are also aggravated assaults. Similarly, cruel and deadly intent with a high degree of injury to the victim can also raise an assault charge to an aggravated assault.
Deliberately misrepresenting your intentions or qualifications in your dealings is also a felony. Fraud covers many types of business and political activities where people must disclose information about themselves, their organizations and their purposes.
Related read: 11 common types of stock broker fraud.
The federal system has 5 classes of felonies, from Class E at the low end to Class A at the top. Most states follow some version of this structure.
- Class E felonies include 1-5 years of imprisonment.
- Class D felonies include 5-10 years of imprisonment.
- Class C felonies include 10-25 years of imprisonment.
- Class B felonies include more than 25 years of imprisonment.
- Class A felonies include life in prison or the death penalty.
Categories of felony defenses
Defense attorneys commonly present at least 1 of 4 defenses in felony cases.
- First, an attorney might assert that their client is innocent because they didn’t commit the alleged crime.
- Second, an attorney might argue the government violated their client’s Constitutional rights, such as by failing to read them their rights during the arrest.
- Third, an attorney might claim their client’s actions were self-defense.
- Finally, an attorney might assert that their client was mentally incompetent and didn’t understand they were committing a crime.