A felony is a serious crime in the common law countries, and the United States retains this designation. The term originates from English common law where felonies were originally crimes which involved the confiscation of a convicted person's land and goods; other crimes were called misdemeanors. Many common law countries have now abolished the felony/misdemeanor distinction and replaced it with other distinctions such as between indictable offences and summary offences.
A person convicted in a court of law of a felony crime is known as a felon. In the United States, where the felony/misdemeanor distinction is still widely applied, the Federal government defines a felony as a crime punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year. If punishable by exactly one year or less, it is classified as a misdemeanor.
Similar to felonies in some civil law countries (e.g.: Italy, Spain etc.) are delicts, whereas in others (e.g. France, Belgium, Switzerland etc.) crimes (more serious) and delicts (less serious).
Crimes commonly considered to be felonies include, but are not limited to: aggravated assault and/or battery, arson, burglary, illegal drug use/sales, grand theft, robbery, murder, rape, and vandalism on federal property. Broadly, felonies can be categorized as either violent or non-violent (property and drug) offenses.
Some offenses, though similar in nature, may be felonies or misdemeanors depending on the circumstances. For example, the illegal manufacture, distribution or possession of controlled substances may be a felony, although possession of small amounts may be only a misdemeanor. Possession of a deadly weapon may be generally legal, but carrying the same weapon into a restricted area such as a school may be viewed as a serious offense, regardless of whether there is intent to use the weapon.
In some states, felonies are also classified (class A, B, etc.) according to their seriousness and punishment. In New York State, the classes of felonies are E, D, C, B, A-II, and A-I (the most severe). Others class felonies numerically, e.g., capital, life, 1st degree, 2nd degree, 3rd degree, state jail or class 1, 2, etc. (VA). The number of classifications and the corresponding crimes vary by state and are determined by the legislature. Usually, the legislature also determines the maximum punishment allowable for each felony class; this avoids the necessity of defining specific sentences for every possible crime.
A felony may be punishable with imprisonment for one or more years or death in the case of the most serious felonies, such as murder. Indeed, at common law when the British and American legal systems divorced in 1776, felonies were crimes for which the punishment was either death or forfeiture of property. In modern times, felons can receive punishments which range in severity; from probation, to imprisonment, to execution for premeditated murder or other serious crimes.
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