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Classifying Crimes – Murder, Felony, Misdemeanor, & Summary

November 1, 2011

2. Law

Classifying Crimes – Murder, Felony, Misdemeanor, & Summary

We need to focus on just one state in order to get through this topic.  While every state is different, there are a lot of similarities, so using Pennsylvania will be instructive.

Here’s the hierarchy from worst to, um, less worse:

  • Murder 1
  • Murder 2
  • Felony 1
  • Felony 2
  • Felony 3
  • Misdemeanor 1
  • Misdemeanor 2
  • Misdemeanor 3
  • Summary

The words and numbers are more properly stated, for example, Murder in the First Degree.  You’ll hear “Second Degree Felony.”  Shorthand is often “F1,” “M3,” etc.

Individual crimes fit into one and only one category.  Theft is a bit different in that the same crime will change categories based upon the value or the item stolen (read here for a longer discussion).  Also, sometimes you need to look into the details of the alleged criminal act to know the grading.

Burglary is, generally, entering a premises with the intent to commit a crime therein.  At Common Law, we were very concerned about the safety of people in their homes.  In fact, the crime was defined with this in mind:  The breaking and entering the house of another in the night time, with intent to commit a felony therein.  Only a house – and only at night!

We actually carry this concept into present day.  Burglary of a premise that is set up for overnight accommodation is an F1.  If no bed or similar item, then it’s an F2 – unless someone was present.  Two different crimes; two gradings.

To understand the difference in these levels, let’s annotate the list with maximum sentence information:

  • Murder 1 – Death or life in prison
  • Murder 2 – Life
  • Felony 1 – More than 10 years
  • Felony 2 – Not more than 10 years
  • Felony 3 – Not more than 7 years
  • Misdemeanor 1 – Not more than 5 years
  • Misdemeanor 2 – Not more than 2 years
  • Misdemeanor 3 – Not more than 1 years
  • Summary – Not more than 90 days

Now, there are all sorts of details that come into play when someone is sentenced – weapon enhancement, if the victim was a cop or elderly person or child, etc.  There is no way to predict anything about a sentence merely with the generalized information above.  Also, someone could have three M3 sentences that run end to end rather than at the same time.  A person’s criminal history also comes into play.  Read a bit more on sentencing here.

Why does a crime get classified higher up the food chain?  As a general statement, crimes against people are viewed more harshly than crimes against property.  The classic inherently violent felonies – Burglary, Arson, Rape, Robbery, Kidnapping, and Sodomy – are all slammed at sentencing.  Remember, Arson may feel like a crime against property until you’re a person inside the building that got torched.  And since when is a criminal in absolute knowledge of the location of everyone?

Let me clarify Murder 2.  Pennsylvania also has Murder 3 – but that’s graded as an F1.  Murder 2 is the “Felony-Murder Rule.”  Assume that you are committing a Burglary  You’re at the top of the stairs and the homeowner approaches you.  You shove him down the stairwell.  Thump, thump, thump, crunch.  He dies.  You just bought yourself Murder 2.  Any accessory to the crime – the lookout stationed in the bushes outside – also just bought himself Murder 2.

The rub on Felony-Murder is this:  It’s the death, practically regardless of the circumstances other than during the commission of the felony, that makes it Murder.  Many Murder 2 convictions would have been Manslaughter (Voluntary is an F1; Involuntary is an M1) but for the felony you all were perpetrating at the time.

And just because it’s ringing through my head … Murder 1 is an intentional killing.  Murder 2, as discussed above, is the Felony-Murder Rule.  Murder 3 is all other murders.  An example of “all other” is a deeply emotional situation.  You’re arguing with your wife in the double-wide.  You push and shove each other.  Emotions are cranked.  You accuse her of having sex with the dog.  Without thinking, she grabs the .357 from the cookie jar and smears your brains all over the walls like so much jam on rye toast.  Hate when that happens.  She’ll probably get 10 to 20, then move in with Roger.

When you look at a charging sheet, the crime listing may mean little to you.  It’s the grading that you care about.  Here’s how you might see it:

 18 Pa. § 3502 – Burglary (F2) …

There’ll be more text after the dots.  But the “(F2)” tells you the grading.   Your stint is graded as a Felony of the Second Degree.

Also, don’t get wrapped up in charging sheets.  They can and probably will change.  They can also have lesser-included offenses, which will make the list longer than you could ever be convicted by a jury.

But as I’ve written before, if you’ve got a charging sheet, then you’re looking at Misdemeanors and above.  The prospect of incarceration is on the table.  Get an attorney.

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About Clyde

Clyde is the lead attorney in the firm. Licensed to practice in 1993, he's also taught Constitutional and Criminal Law for several years at a private university, primarily at the Master's level.

View all posts by Clyde


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