What are Aggravating Factors?

Punishments and penalties for a criminal offense are not only based on the crime itself. Other factors about the act or the defendant are also taken into consideration. What if the defendant is a career criminal? What if the crime was advanced in a particularly cruel and egregious manner? 

Aggravating factors are any factors that can be considered during sentencing to increase the severity of the criminal act or the culpability of the defendant. When aggravating factors are present, they can lead to harsher sentencing and punishment for a defendant.

A Range of Sentencing Possibilities

Criminal actions are defined by statutes and ranked in levels of severity, from misdemeanors to felonies. Federal crimes, as well as some state crimes, have mandatory sentences which are very specific to the crime. In these cases, all defendants who are charged and convicted of these crimes will receive identical sentences. 

But sentencing for other crimes at the state level can be discretionary. The court can consider other factors surrounding the crime to fine-tune the sentence to the crime as well as the offender.

What Governs How An Individual is Sentenced for a Crime?

In most cases, judges, not juries, are the ones who sentence the defendant. The judge determines how and to what degree the defendant will be punished. After the jury’s conviction, the judge will then consider other factors to support the degree of penalties. 

Many criminal charges – especially felonies – are subject to a wide range of potential penalties. A judge can be lenient or harsh, depending on the circumstances. Aggravating factors weigh heavily on a judge’s decision and increase the chances of harsh punishment.

The Sentencing Hearing and How a Judge Will Weigh the Penalties

After a defendant has pled or been found guilty of a crime, the judge will decide what penalties will be imposed at the sentencing hearing. The judge will hear any evidence that the defense or prosecutor has, either for or against the defendant, that may have bearing on their sentencing. 

Mitigating factors can cause the court to consider a lesser sentence. Aggravating factors can compel a judge to impose harsher penalties. 

The defense attorney will typically present factors that weigh in favor of the defendant. The goal will be to reduce the severity of the punishment and offer evidence to suggest that the minimal penalties be imposed. 

On the other hand, the prosecutor may present aggravating factors that may suggest that the crime justifies a more severe penalty. 

How Does the Judge Decide on What Aggravating Factors Can Be Considered?

The California Rules of Court govern criminal sentencing. These offer uniform rules and procedures as they apply to the law and their enforcement. 

Rule 4.421 of the rules of court specifically addresses those circumstances that a judge may consider as aggravating factors when sentencing a defendant. These include factors about the crime itself as well as factors concerning the defendant.

Examples of Aggravating Factors

Aggravating factors are those facts and circumstances surrounding the commission of the crime that may allow a judge to impose harsher punishment for the defendant. Under Rule 4.421, some common aggravating factors that can be considered include:

  • Prior convictions. The court may decide to sentence a defendant more harshly if they have had previous convictions. For instance, California’s Three Strikes Law sets out that a defendant who has been convicted of a felony with one prior conviction must serve a sentence double that considered for the crime. With two prior convictions, 25 years to life in prison is mandated.
  • Use of a weapon. A judge will consider whether a defendant was armed or used a weapon during the crime. 
  • The victim’s vulnerability. A judge can consider a harsher sentence when the victim was particularly vulnerable such as a crime against a child, someone with a disability, or one that targeted the elderly. 
  • The use of great violence or bodily harm exhibiting particular cruelty. In the case of significant bodily injury in the commission of a crime, a judge can impose additional years to the term of the defendant consecutively to another term. 
  • The inducement of others. The court can consider harsher penalties when a defendant has induced others, particularly minors, to take part in the crime. 
  • Threatening witnesses. If a defendant has threatened witnesses not to speak or cooperate with law enforcement or the court, the judge can impose harsher sentencing. Threatening or intimidating a witness is a crime unto itself and can be separately charged. 
  • The crime constitutes a hate crime. f a defendant committed a crime based on the victim’s race, ethnic heritage, religion, or sexual preference, it may be considered a hate crime under Penal Code Section 422.55 PC and be subject to harsher penalties by the court. 

These are not exhaustive, as many other aggravating factors may be considered at sentencing. However, a judge, with the exception of previous convictions, cannot use these factors against a defendant unless there is proof of them beyond a reasonable doubt.  

How Can Aggravating Factors Affect a Defendant’s Case?

Aggravating factors can weigh heavily on the severity of penalties for a defendant. In some cases, they can mean the difference between a short jail time or a lengthy prison sentence. 

If you have been accused of a crime in California, your future may be in the balance. An experienced criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles, California will have the skill to identify aggravating factors prior to sentencing and offset those to help obtain your best results.