Legal definition of a “Felony” (Former DA explains)

What is a felony?

The technical legal definition of a felony is: It’s a crime for which the maximum sentence is more than a year in custody. If the max is a year or less, then by definition it’s a misdemeanor. If the max is more than a year, then by definition it’s a felony.

Now the most serious crimes, like murder and rape, can only be filed as felonies. Then you have some less serious crimes, such as grand theft, that are what we call wobblers. That means they could be filed as either a felony or a misdemeanor. The prosecutor usually decides that in the first instance, but even if it’s filed as a felony the judge can later reduce it to a misdemeanor. Felonies tend to be more serious crimes, and the consequences of a felony conviction tend to be more serious.

When I say that, I’m really talking about five things. One, is the sentencing range. Like I said, misdemeanors can carry only up to a year in county jail. Most felonies carry up to three years in jail or prison. Some carry eight years or 12 years. Some can carry life in prison, or even the death penalty in the case of murder. So the jail and prison time is much greater in felony cases.

Secondly, probation. If you are convicted of a felony and you’re put on probation, it will be formal probation, a felony probation. That means that you will have a probation officer that you have to report to. You have to pay the probation department, sometimes thousands of dollars. You have to reside in the county where you’re convicted. The probation in felony cases is much more onerous than it is in a misdemeanor case.

Thirdly, you will lose your gun rights. If you’re convicted of a felony, then most often you will lose the right to possess, use or own a firearm for the rest of your life.

Fourthly, felonies tend to have much more effect on professional licenses. If you have a professional license such as a nursing license or an accountant’s license, or you intend to get one, these boards tend to take much greater disciplinary action in a felony case than in a misdemeanor case. If you talk about the State Bar of California, for example, many times the bar won’t do anything to a lawyer who is convicted of a misdemeanor, but will almost always take action against their license if they’re convicted of a felony.

And finally, felonies tend to have greater consequence for employment. Employers will often shy away from considering or hiring a person who’s a convicted felon. So to the extent that you’re charged with a felony, you want to do everything that you can to get it reduced to a misdemeanor or to beat the charge altogether.