The Serious Nature of Felonies
Felonies are typically the most serious crimes in any system of criminal law. A standard definition of a felony is any crime punishable by more than one year in prison or by death. This means that any crime that has a sentence of only a fine or confinement in the local jail is not a felony. Often the offense itself is not labeled as a felony, but the punishment tells the public that the offense is a felony. On the other hand, state codes may label a crime a "gross" or "aggravated" misdemeanor but provide for a sentence of more than one year in the state penitentiary system, thereby ensuring that the so-called misdemeanor is treated as felony in many respects.
If a crime is a felony, additional criminal procedures apply. The right to a court-appointed attorney in cases where the defendant is too poor to afford to hire a lawyer is usually triggered if the charge is a felony, but not for less-serious crimes. Likewise, whether or not a criminal defendant must be present in court for various parts of the process may depend on whether he or she is charged with a felony.
In some jurisdictions, felonies can only be charged upon a grand jury indictment,
while lesser crimes can be charged by a written information. Criminal
defendants and witnesses can have their testimony disregarded in some
jurisdictions by showing a prior conviction for a felony but not for a
lesser crime. Finally, many jurisdictions base their "three strikes"
laws on felonies but not misdemeanors. If the offender has been twice
convicted of a felony, one more felony conviction will subject him to
life in prison.
In addition to differences in procedural criminal law, the substantive law can be affected if a crime is designated a felony. Some statutes make an accidental death a murder if it occurs in the commission of a felony, but if it occurs in the commission of a lesser crime, it is only manslaughter. Burglary is defined at common law as breaking and entering a house for the purpose of committing a felony; if the purpose was not to commit a felony the crime cannot be charged as burglary.
The crime of conspiracy may carry a harsher penalty if the offense is conspiracy to commit a felony rather than conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor. Justifiable homicide is sometimes described as a killing to prevent the commission of a felony, although more commonly it is limited to prevention of certain of the most serious felonies.
A person convicted of a felony may have more restrictions on their rights than a person convicted of a lesser crime. In many jurisdictions, felons cannot serve on juries. Often times they lose their right to vote or to practice certain professions, such as lawyer or teacher. Felons may be prohibited from owning guns or serving in the military. Some states have a "three strikes, you're out" statute which provides that a person who already has been convicted of two felonies may be sentenced to life in prison if he or she is convicted of a third felony.
If you are facing charges in Reno or Lake Tahoe, contact Joey Gilbert Law to discuss your rights. Call (775) 574-4774.