Most people think of felonies simply as more serious than misdemeanors, and with higher fines and more jail time for the convicted. There is some truth in this.

But it is sometimes hard to tell felonies from misdemeanors looking only at the seriousness of the alleged behavior. And felony conviction often means much more to a person’s life than fines and time. In Virginia, the sometimes-slim difference between felonies and misdemeanors can mean disenfranchisement or having the right to vote in elections.

Felonies, misdemeanors and wobblers

Virginia misdemeanors classifications range from minor Class 4 misdemeanors like public intoxication up to serious Class 1 misdemeanors like domestic violence resulting in injuries.

Felonies have parallel classes, from less serious Class 4 felonies like violating of a court order up to Class 1 felonies such as first-degree murder.

Between the most serious misdemeanors and the least serious felonies is a gray zone where some crimes are charged as either misdemeanors or felonies. The difference might depend on objective facts or on the opinions of officials.

Consequences of felony convictions beyond the sentence

Although the consequences of this difference can mean a great deal to the accused, these crimes are sometimes called by the casual term “wobblers.”

In Virginia and a few other states, people convicted of a felony lose their voting rights. Several other rights and opportunities people take for granted also disappear for people with felony convictions in Virginia.

For some, the ability to take part in choosing who makes the laws they will live under means a lot, and felons lose it automatically for life. Only the governor can, and the current governor does, restore the voting rights of those convicted of felonies. Future governors chosen by the voters may not have the same policy.