Aggravating Factors

Aggravating and mitigating factors are used during the sentencing phase of a criminal trial. Judges may consider a variety of factors when determining an appropriate sentence for a guilty plea or a guilty verdict.

An aggravating factor is a specific circumstance that increases the severity of the crime. Aggravating factors in a case enhance sentencing to impose a harsher penalty. 

Some criminal statutes list specific aggravating factors that might apply in the case. For example, the statute for first degree murder includes 18 specific aggravating factors, such as the victim being a police officer, firefighter, or other public servant or the murder was committed by torture.

In either case, the aggravating factors generally result in a harsher sentence for the defendant. The penalty enhancement depends on the type of factor, the number of factors present, and the sentencing guidelines for the crime.

Examples of Aggravating Factors in West Chester Criminal Cases

Examples of Aggravating Factors in West Chester Criminal Cases

The prosecution presents the aggravating factors during the sentencing phase of the case. The prosecutor uses any specific aggravating factors listed in the criminal statute, and other recognized aggravating factors. The purpose is to convince a judge that the defendant deserves a sentence that exceeds a mandatory minimum sentence.

Examples of aggravating factors include, but are not limited to:

  • Using a weapon to commit the crime
  • Whether or not the crime is considered a hate crime, such as crimes against people based on their race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, age, gender identity, etc.
  • The defendant has a past criminal record
  • The victim is a vulnerable victim, such as the victim has a physical or mental disability, is elderly, or a child
  • The defendant has a prior conviction for the same criminal offense (repeat offenders)
  • The criminal offense is a crime of violence that results in the death or injury of another person
  • The type and severity of the victim’s injuries
  • Whether or not the defendant played a role in planning the crime (i.e., leadership role)

Aggravating factors can only be used to enhance a sentence when the jury finds the factors to be true beyond a reasonable doubt, according to the decision by the United States Supreme Court in Cunningham v. California. However, a prior conviction does not need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be used to enhance a criminal sentence. 

Pennsylvania’s Three Strikes Law and Aggravating Factors

The state’s Three Strikes Law is different from aggravating factors, even though it results in a harsher criminal sentence. The justice system considers a “third strike” to be justification for more severe punishments because the person is a repeat offender.

Therefore, if you are convicted of a third violent crime, even without aggravating factors, the judge must sentence you to at least 25 years in prison. The judge may also impose a life sentence for a third strike. 

How Do Mitigating Factors Impact a Criminal Sentence?

Mitigating factors are the opposite of aggravating factors. They are circumstances the defense offers during the sentencing phase that support leniency. 

Mitigating factors are not an excuse for committing a crime. However, they are circumstances that lessen the defendant’s blame for the crime.

Examples of mitigating circumstances could include, but are not limited to:

  • The defendant played a minor role in the criminal activity
  • There is no prior criminal history
  • The defendant has a mental illness or cognitive impairment
  • The defendant shows genuine remorse for the crime
  • The crime was non-violent 
  • The defendant is the victim of past circumstances that could have contributed to the cause of the criminal activity (i.e., a sexual abuse victim accused of manslaughter for killing the abuser)
  • The defendant lacked intent to commit the crime
  • The circumstances at the time of the crime could offer another explanation for the defendant’s conduct
  • The defendant was addicted to drugs at the time the crime was committed
  • Recognition of past good deeds and good moral character up to the time of the crime
  • The defendant acted under extreme duress or stress

As with aggravating factors, the factors depend on the type of criminal case and the facts of the case. Mitigating factors do not mean that the person is not guilty of the crime. The factors are only used to determine if the person should receive a lesser punishment for the crime.

The Impact of Aggravating and Mitigating Factors on a Criminal Case

Depending on the factors and the other circumstances of your case, aggravating and mitigating factors can significantly impact the outcome of your criminal case. Because you do not want to give the prosecutor more evidence against you, it is best not to talk to the police or the prosecutor without a criminal defense lawyer present.

If the police arrest you for a crime, it is best to remain silent. You must give the officers your name and address, but you are not required to answer other questions without a lawyer present. 

Contact Our Office for a Free Consultation with a West Chester Criminal Defense Lawyer

Our legal team diligently works to present a strong defense to criminal charges. Call our law office at (610) 430-3535 to schedule a free case evaluation with our criminal defense attorney in West Chester, PA.