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What is a Felony?

Updated on January 16, 2010

A felony, in American law, is a serious crime, punishable either by the death penalty or by imprisonment in a state prison. At common law, die term "felony" formerly included any crime for which the penalty could be a total forefeiture of lands or goods, or both (with or without capital punishment added). Forfeiture no longer exists, either in England or the United States; and under modern law, felonies comprise those offenses that are so defined by statute or were so classified by the common law.

Whether a certain crime is a felony or a misdemeanor depends generally upon the penalty that can be imposed by law for its commission. (In many states, a distinguishing factor is that imprisonment for a felony exceeds one year.) A crime may be a felony in one jurisdiction but not in another; and a particular offense may be a felony under either state or federal law, or both.

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