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Almost every state classifies crimes as either a "felony" or a misdemeanor. In the criminal world, a "felony" is the most serious type of crime that person can commit. Generally, these are crimes that seriously threaten human life or property. Typically, they carry a sentence or punishment of imprisonment in the state's prison or penitentiary for one or more years, payment of fine, or both. Sometimes they're punishable by death. Good examples are murder, kidnapping and arson. Misdemeanors, on the other hand, are less serious crimes that usually are punishable by a fine, confinement in a county or local jail for several days or months or both.

For the most part, felonies are usually separated according to what's threatened, that is, human life or property. Also, many states classify felonies based upon their seriousness and the severity of the punishment. For example, you may hear about class A or class B felonies, or first degree or second degree felonies. For instance, robbery in the first degree may mean that a weapon, like a gun or knife was used in the crime, and a prison term of 20 years may be the punishment. Robbery in the second degree, however, may mean that no weapon was used and the maximum sentence may be 10 years. These classifications vary from state to state. Likewise, a crime may be a felony in one state but not in another state. For example, stealing property worth $500 in one state may be a felony but only a misdemeanor in another state.

Below are descriptions of some of the most common felonies that you may hear or read about. The names of the crimes, however, may be different in your state.

Crimes Against Persons

Assault: Sometimes called "assault and battery" or "battery," in many states, this crime is a felony when you try to or actually cause another person to suffer a serious bodily injury, and/or you cause the injury by using a dangerous weapon. For example, actually stabbing someone with a knife is, at the very least, an assault and battery, but merely threatening to stab someone without physically touching him may be a felony crime, as well.

DUI/DWI (driving while intoxicated, driving while under the influence or driving while impaired): This crime involves operating some type of vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, either illegal drugs or even prescription or over-the-counter medications. In most states, "vehicle" covers more than cars. It may include boats, motorcycles, ATVs, and in some states, bicycles and farm machinery. In addition, each state specific laws on detecting the level of alcohol or drugs in an operator's body. Usually, DUI/DWI is a felony only if a driver has one or more prior convictions for DUI/DWI.

Domestic violence: Generally, this crime is an assault and battery committed by one household member against another. In most states, this includes not only spouses and children, but also persons who are living together in the same home and ex-spouses. Some states include persons who are dating. In many states, domestic violence is a felony if the person has been convicted of the crime more than three or more times or if the victim suffers severe physical injuries.

Drug crimes: The crime of "drug possession," as a felony, usually involves the possession of a large amount of illegal drugs or narcotics, like marijuana and cocaine, and it may include the unlawful possession of a large amount of prescription drugs. Most states have "schedules" that classify the various types of drugs according to their danger for things like potential for abuse, dependency or addiction, and legitimate medical use. Also most state laws set out in detail the quantity of each drug a person may possess for purposes of charging the possession as a misdemeanor or felony crime. For example, possessing one ounce of marijuana may be a misdemeanor, but the possession five pounds is likely a felony. In many states, possession of a large amount of drugs may lead to a conviction for a more serious drug-related felony, such as "drug trafficking," because it's assumed that a person intends to sell or distribute the drugs because of the large quantity.

Kidnapping: In most states, this crime is committed either when: (1) one person takes and moves another person to another place against her will, or; (2) restrains or confines another person in an enclosed space against her will. In many states, there has to be an unlawful or illegal purpose for taking or confining that person. For example, it's kidnapping in many states when a non-custodial parent refuses to return his child to the custodial parent, or when someone is confined until a ransom is paid.

Manslaughter (involuntary): This is the unintentional killing of another human being that came about through the actor's negligent or reckless conduct. For example, if driver A is speeding though traffic and collides with another car, killing driver B, driver A may be charged with involuntary manslaughter in some states.

Manslaughter (voluntary): This is the intentional killing of another human being, but under circumstances where the actor had no prior intent to kill. This often called "heat of passion" homicide or killing. For example, in some states, it's voluntary manslaughter when a spouse finds his partner in bed with another person and, in a fit of rage, kills the other person right then and there.

Murder (first degree): Also known as "capital murder" or just "murder" in some states, it's when the actor intentionally and deliberately and with "pre-meditation" - meaning the actor made a plan - kills another person. For example, it may be first degree murder when a spouse sees her partner in bed with another woman, and 2 days later, she puts poison in his dinner, killing him.

Murder (second degree): In many states, this is either: (1) An intentional but unplanned killing of another human being, or; (2) causing the death of another person through dangerous conduct or activities showing an "extreme indifference" to human life. For example, it may be second degree murder when 2 days after a spouse saw her partner in bed with another woman, she sees them walking down the street together and tries to run them over with her car, but instead she hits and kills another pedestrian.

Rape: Typically, this crime involves non-consensual sexual contact with another person, with some degree of penetration of the victim, under use or threat of force or bodily injury.

Robbery: This crime involves using physical force to take money or property directly from the victim, and the victim is actually injured or is threatened with bodily injury.

Crimes against Property

Arson: Usually, this crime is committed when a person intentionally sets fire to a building, but in some states the crime also covers setting wildfires. In most states, arson is a more serious crime when the building is a home or if someone is in the building at the time the fire is set.

Burglary: This crime involves the unauthorized or unlawful entry of a building with the intent of committing a crime in that building, such as theft or arson.

Credit Card Fraud: Generally, this crime involves the unauthorized and non-consensual use of another person's credit card or credit card information to pay for goods or services. Usually, this crime is a felony when a large amount of credit is obtained and/or used.

Theft: In most states, this crime covers the unauthorized and non-consensual taking of another person's property with the intent to deprive the owner of it permanently. Also, in many states, theft includes "receiving" or "possessing" stolen property. And "property" includes anything that has value, such as personal property, like clothing and jewelry; money; and services, like telephone and cable service. Generally, theft is a felony only when the value of property taken is more than a certain amount, usually in the thousands of dollars.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I broke into my ex-girlfriends house to get some things that belong to me, but I was caught after I was seen by a neighbor. I was carrying an unloaded gun. Now I'm being charged with felony burglary. Can I be charged for taking my own property?
  • I've just been arrested for domestic violence, and I have two prior convictions. Is there anyway you can help me avoid a felony conviction?
  • I tried to burn down an abandoned building I own. When I set the fire, there was a homeless person in the building, but I didn't know that. He died in the fire. Can I be charged with murder?
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