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Felonies, Misdemeanors, and Infractions

The power to define a crime and classify it as a felony, misdemeanor, or infraction rests solely with the legislature at the federal level (see U. S. v. Hudson, 7 Cranch 32, 11 U.S. 32, 3 L.Ed. 259 [U. S. 1812]). Federal courts do not have the power to punish any act that is not forbidden by federal statute. Most crimes made punishable by federal law are set forth in Title 18 U.S.C. sections 1 et seq.

In the eighteenth century U. S. courts possessed the power to define crimes and establish classifica-tions for criminal offenses. These judicially-created offenses were known as common law crimes. By the early nineteenth century, federal common law crimes were under increasing attack as violating the mandate of the separation of powers established by the U. S. Constitution. Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to make law, while Article III gives the judiciary the power to interpret and apply it. Thus, the constitutionally limited role of federal courts precludes them from defining crimes or creating classifications for criminal offenses.

Most states have also abolished common law crimes. In these states the legislature is given the primary and often sole responsibility for defining illegal behavior (the executive branch in a few states plays a limited lawmaking function via executive orders and administrative agency rules and regulations). In the minority of states that still recognize common law crimes, judges generally are not permitted to create new common law crimes from the bench. Instead, all 50 states and the District of Columbia rely on their penal code to shape the nature and scope of their jurisdiction’s criminal laws, and when a penal code designates an offense as a felony, misdemeanor, or infraction, that designation is normally deemed conclusive by the courts.

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