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What Are Mitigating Circumstances in Criminal Cases?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Apr 20, 2024

Under California criminal law, mitigating circumstances help lessen a defendant's guilt and encourage the judge to be more lenient in sentencing. For example, perhaps a defendant has no prior criminal record or played a minor role in the crime.

In other words, If you've been charged or convicted of a crime in California, that doesn't mean you will get the maximum sentence. Often, the judge will consider certain mitigating circumstances when determining your sentence. 

Mitigating Circumstances in Criminal Cases
Mitigating circumstances can help lessen a defendant’s guilt and result in a lighter sentence.

It does excuse or justify the crime but can reduce its severity and the associated penalties. Once you are found guilty of a crime, your criminal defense lawyer might be able to present some mitigating factors to lessen the penalties. 

Simply put, after a conviction for a crime, the main objective of a defense lawyer should be to show any mitigating circumstances in your case and ask the judge to consider them when determining your sentence.  

Conversely, aggravating factors, such as prior convictions and victim injuries, increase one's culpability and could lead to an enhanced sentence.

Mitigating circumstances are facts surrounding a crime that work to reduce your culpability for committing it. Your defense lawyer can present mitigating circumstances during a misdemeanor and felony sentencing hearing to persuade the judge to impose a more lenient sentence.

Perhaps you were under duress, provoked, or acted in self-defense. Maybe you committed shoplifting to provide food for your family. Possibly, you have a clean record or took responsibility for the crime early in the investigation. Perhaps the gun you used to commit the crime was unloaded.

Maybe we can argue you are the victim of extreme childhood trauma and suffer from a mental illness, which should reduce your responsibility. Perhaps you were too young to understand the consequences of your actions.  

When attempting to get the judge to impose a less severe sentence, you might be able to present a relevant mitigating factor to explain your behavior to try to lessen the seriousness of the crime. 

What are Mitigating Factors? 

Mitigating factors are extenuating circumstances that might be used to get a reduced sentence, including the following:

  • Having no criminal record or
  • Playing a minor role in the crime.
  • Struggles with addictions, etc.

Mitigating factors are conditions related to a crime that do not absolve the defendant of guilt but can reduce the severity of the punishment. 

They can humanize the defendant and provide context for their actions. They are the opposite of aggravating factors that make the crime a worse action and often result in more harsh sentences.

Mitigating factors are not intended to evoke the judge's sympathy toward you; instead, they should directly or indirectly relate to your culpability in committing the crime. 

They can be used to attest to your overall character or demonstrate how you acted out of character or under extreme circumstances in committing the crime.  The primary objective of mitigating circumstances is to show why it would not serve the interest of justice to impose the most severe penalties.

What Are Positive and Negative Mitigating Circumstances?

Mitigating circumstances are typically categorized into positive and negative. Consider the following:

  • Positive mitigating circumstances indicate good character or a lack of a prior criminal record. These often include community involvement, steady employment, or a history of good conduct. For example, if a first-time offender with a family life is charged with a minor crime, these positive aspects of their life can be considered mitigating circumstances.
  • Negative mitigating circumstances involve situations that compelled the defendant to commit the offense under duress or out of necessity. These often include a drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness, or being under the influence of extreme emotional distress. For example, a person who is homeless committing shoplifting to feed their family can be considered an adverse mitigating circumstance.

What Are Some Examples?  

Judges might consider a broad range of mitigating circumstances in California criminal cases when determining the severity of the crime and what kind of sentence is appropriate, such as the following: 

  • First-time Offense: Suppose you have no prior criminal record. In that case, the court may consider your crime an isolated incident, not a behavior pattern.
  • Remorse: The judge might consider demonstrating genuine remorse or regret for your actions as a mitigating factor.
  • Cooperation with the Police. If you 'cooperated with law enforcement during their criminal investigation, the court might view it favorably.
  • Provocation by the Victim: Suppose the victim provoked you into committing the crime. This could be considered a mitigating circumstance because you would likely not have committed the crime otherwise.
  • Mental Illness: Suppose you were suffering from a mental illness at the time of the offense; it could be a mitigating factor if you can demonstrate a direct connection between the illness and your actions.
  • Maturity Level: When rendering a sentence, your age at the time of the crime can be considered. California court rules consider age 26 and younger as a mitigating factor.
  • Good Character: You may be able to show evidence of good character, such as community service, steady employment, or family responsibilities.
  • Duress: This might be a mitigating circumstance if you committed the crime under duress or out of necessity.
  • Minor Role in Crime: You could show that you were only a minor actor or passive participant.
  • Self-Defense: The facts may support the claim that the alleged victim was the aggressor, the provoker who initiated the incident. This means you can argue that you were acting in reasonable self-defense or defense of others. 
  • Addiction. If a crime occurred due to a drug or alcohol addiction, then it might be considered a mitigating factor by the court. Addictions are regarded as mental health issues. However, just claiming that addiction was the likely cause for committing a crime is not sufficient. Any addiction claims must include an evaluation and plan by a medical professional.
  • Efforts to Change. If you can show the judge that you are trying to improve yourself and change your behavior, the judge may consider this during sentencing. This could include participating in counseling, taking prescribed medications, attending rehab, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), or taking other measures to address your addiction. 

Each case is unique, and the effectiveness of mitigating circumstances will depend on the details of the case. Our experienced California criminal defense attorneys can review your situation and determine whether mitigating circumstances are 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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