What Is a Third-Degree Felony?

The Michael Dunn case has been much in the news lately since the verdicts came back from the jury on February 15th of this year. In reading about it in this New York Times article I noticed that one of the four young men in the car had a 3rd-degree felony. These were really just kids that went to the mall. CBS News said one testified they “went to pick up girls.” Nothing wrong. So a crime on anyone’s record stood out to me. Maybe they were threatening kinds of guys. But secondly, how could a felony get as low as the third degree? Isn’t that just a misdemeanor? In my state, Massachusetts, felonies are not in categories per se, but the punishment that makes the act a felony is elucidated with each crime, aggravated by circumstances, or not. Across the U.S., the question is whether the category (felony or misdemeanor) comes first in the state’s heirarchy of crimes, or whether the crime leads and the degree is tacked on. So here are some facts about third-degree felonies.

A third degree felony usually is punishable up to either five years or ten years in a house of correction, depending on the state. Generally, two years is the minimum sentence. Third-degree felony in Florida, where Michael Dunn shot Jordan Davis, is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and can be, among other things, driving with a suspended license for the 3rd time. The sentiment for such a punishment is similar in Massachusetts. The state takes crimes behind the wheel very seriously because they so often can be deadly, despite the possible lack of intent. CBS News said that Tommie Stornes, 20 and the driver of the Dodge Durango that took nine shots that night, was on “felony probation” for burglary. In Florida, the third-degree version of burglary is breaking and entering into a structure or conveyance (not a dwelling) with the intent to steal, while no one is inside.

Ohio and Texas also have the third-degree felony. In Texas, it covers things like Abuse of Official Capacity or Endangering a Child. Ohio codifies the felonies down to the 5th degree.

The most common ranking system in the States is to classify felonies by letter. New York’s system runs from A-E, and the penalty varies depending on whether the crime was violent or non-violent.  When the felony is trending toward the higher degrees, indicating a lesser crime and penalty, there can be a mixup. For example, Illinois classifies felonies by number, but an attempt at a class 3 or 4 felony will get you a conviction for a Class A misdemeanor. In California, which incorporates degrees into the crime charged (similarly to Massachusetts) there exists a thing called a “Wobbler,” where the crime may be classified as a felony or misdemeanor based on judge or prosecutor discretion and the offender’s demeanor during the incident.

We can piece together Mr. Stornes felony, through the above links, as having to do with an entrance into an abandoned structure or conveyance. Not enough to work up a story featuring gangbangers in the vehicle, looking for some vigilante justice. The nation will have to absorb this sorrow for longer.

More by | Jennifer Harris Jennifer Harris , Law.com Contributor
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