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What Are Mitigating Circumstances in Criminal Cases?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Oct 31, 2023

If you've recently been charged with or convicted of a crime in California, that doesn't necessarily mean you will get the maximum sentence for your crime. In many cases, the judge will consider certain mitigating circumstances when determining your sentence.

Mitigating Circumstances in Criminal Cases
Mitigating Circumstances in a criminal case could significantly reduce a defendant's sentence.

While these circumstances do not excuse or justify the crime in question, they can reduce its severity and, consequently, the associated penalties. Thus, once you've been convicted, one of the main objectives of any skilled California criminal defense attorney will be to put forth any mitigating circumstances. Your lawyer can ask the judge to consider these factors when deciding on your sentence.

Simply put, mitigating circumstances are facts that surround a crime that work to reduce your culpability for committing an offense. Your lawyer can present mitigating circumstances during a misdemeanor and felony sentencing hearing to convince the judge to impose a more lenient sentence.

Perhaps you only played a minor role in the crime or were under duress. Maybe you were provoked and were acting in self-defense. Perhaps you have no prior convictions and a clean criminal history. Maybe you took responsibility for the crime early in the investigation. Possibly, the weapon you used to commit the crime was unloaded.

Perhaps we can argue you are the victim of extreme childhood trauma and suffer from a mental illness, which should reduce your responsibility. Maybe you were very young when the crime occurred.

If you want the judge to impose a less severe sentence, you can try to present the court with a mitigating factor, which seeks to explain your behavior to try to lessen the seriousness of the crime. Let's review further below.

Mitigating Circumstances – Explained

Mitigating factors are extenuating circumstances that could result in a reduced sentence, such as having no criminal record or playing a minor role in the crime. Aggravating factors are circumstances that increase your culpability and could lead to an enhanced sentence, such as prior convictions and victim injuries.

Mitigating Circumstances

Mitigating circumstances are conditions or facts related to a crime that do not absolve the defendant of guilt but may reduce the severity of the punishment.

They are elements that can humanize the accused and provide context for their actions. These stand in contrast to aggravating circumstances—factors that make the crime a worse action and often result in more severe sentences.

It should be stressed that mitigating circumstances are not intended to evoke the judge's sympathy toward you—because if justice is being served, your sentence will not be arbitrary.

Instead, mitigating circumstances should directly or indirectly relate to your culpability in committing the crime. They can attest to your overall character or demonstrate how you acted out of character or under extreme circumstances in committing the crime. The objective of mitigating circumstances is to show why it would not serve the interest of justice to hit you with more severe penalties.

Positive Vs. Negative Mitigating Circumstances

Mitigating circumstances are generally categorized into two types: positive and negative.

  • Positive mitigating circumstances indicate your good character or lack of a prior criminal record. This could include community involvement, steady employment, or a history of good behavior. For instance, if a first-time offender with a stable job and family life is charged with a minor offense, these positive aspects of their life could be considered mitigating circumstances.
  • Negative mitigating circumstances involve situations that compelled the defendant to commit the crime under duress or out of necessity. These could include addiction, mental illness, or being under the influence of extreme emotional distress. For example, a person who committed shoplifting to feed their starving family could have their dire financial situation considered an adverse mitigating circumstance.

What Are Some Examples of Mitigating Circumstances?

Judges may consider a wide range of mitigating circumstances in California criminal cases when weighing the severity of the crime and what kind of sentence is warranted. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • First-time Offense: If you have no previous criminal record, the court may perceive your crime as an isolated incident, not a pattern of your behavior.
  • Remorse: The court considers demonstrating genuine remorse or regret for your actions a mitigating factor.
  • Cooperation with Law Enforcement: If you've cooperated with the police during their investigation, the court could view it favorably.
  • Victim Provocation: If the victim provoked you into committing the crime, this could be a mitigating circumstance because you would likely not have committed the crime otherwise.
  • Mental or Physical Illness: If you were suffering from a mental or physical illness at the time of the offense, it could be a mitigating factor if you can draw a connection between the illness and your actions.
  • Age or Maturity Level: Your age or maturity at the time of the offense can be considered when rendering a sentence. California court rules specifically consider age 26 and younger as a mitigating factor.
  • Good Character: Evidence of good character, such as community service, steady employment, or family responsibilities, can be used in your favor as a mitigating factor.
  • Duress or Necessity: This could be a mitigating circumstance if you committed the crime under duress or out of necessity. For example, under threat of harm to yourself or your family.
  • Minor Role: Perhaps there is information that you were a minor actor or passive participant in the offense.
  • Self-Defense: Perhaps the facts show the alleged victim in the case was the aggressor, provoker, initiated the incident, and that you were acting in reasonable self-defense or defense of others.

If a crime occurred due to an addiction, then evidence of that addiction might be considered a mitigating factor by the court. Addictions are regarded as mental health issues.

Simply stating that addiction was the likely cause for committing a crime is not enough to sway a judge's sentencing decision. Any addiction claims should be complemented by an evaluation and plan by a medical professional.

If you can show the court that you are trying to improve, a judge may consider this during sentencing. This includes participating in counseling, taking prescribed medications, attending rehab, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), or taking other measures to control your addiction.

Remember, every case is unique, and the effectiveness of using these mitigating circumstances will depend on the specifics of your case. An experienced defense attorney can help assess your situation and determine which mitigating circumstances are most relevant to your defense strategy. Contact us for a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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