Federal Crimes Blog

Aggravating and Mitigating Circumstances in Federal Sentencing

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding | Dec 06, 2023

Federal judges evaluate criminal cases to identify elements demonstrating the offense's severity. These factors often affect the outcome of a defendant's case positively or negatively.

Aggravating and mitigating factors in an alleged crime play a critical role in determining penalties. Judges will examine aggravating and mitigating circumstances and sentence defendants according to the presence of these factors. 

Aggravating and Mitigating Circumstances in Federal Sentencing
Aggravating and mitigating circumstances can enhance or reduce a defendant's sentence.

So, what is the difference between aggravating and mitigating factors? Simply put, “aggravating” factors increase the severity and culpability of a crime, such as having prior convictions. Thus, “mitigating” factors decrease the guilt of a crime, such as having a clean criminal history.  

Mitigating factors are extenuating circumstances that could lead to a reduced sentence. Aggravating factors are circumstances that increase the defendant's culpability and could lead to an enhanced or maximum sentence.

The outcome of your federal criminal case can heavily depend on aggravating and mitigating factors. In other words, aggravating factors can worsen your case, while mitigating factors can help it. It would be best to have a criminal defense lawyer who understands both sides to help significantly achieve a favorable outcome.

Most federal crimes are defined in statutes and impose specific penalties, typically a “range” of time up to a maximum sentence. Judges will use the abovementioned aggravating or mitigating factors when a defendant is convicted to determine their sentence. Let's take a closer look below:

Aggravate or Mitigate – Quick Facts

There are some essential facts you should know about aggravating and mitigating circumstances in federal criminal sentencing, such as the following: 

  • Mitigating factors are extenuating circumstances that might result in a reduced sentence, such as playing a minor role in the crime. 
  • Aggravating factors increase a defendant's culpability and could lead to an enhanced sentence, such as victim injuries. 
  • Federal judges have broad discretion to determine a sentence.
  • The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) maintains extensive guidelines for determining sentencing ranges for federal offenses. 
  • Judges can also consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances in determining the severity of a sentence.
  • Federal prosecutors often try to highlight aggravating factors to procure a more severe sentence when trying your case.
  • Repeat offenses will usually carry harsher penalties.
  • A federal criminal defense attorney will emphasize mitigating factors when arguing your case to seek more leniency in sentencing.
  • Certain crimes and aggravating factors can trigger mandatory minimum sentences, removing a judge's ability to adjust a sentence downward.
  • Many federal crimes carry mandatory minimums, such as child pornography, drug crimes, and violent crimes.

What Are Aggravating Circumstances?

As noted, aggravating circumstances increase the culpability of a criminal act. They generally include the severity of the crime, lack of remorse, and prior convictions. 

Others are related to how the crime was committed, such as the use of a weapon and the seriousness of the victim's injuries. Any crime motivated by hate and bias can be punished more severely.

The court will typically determine that they make the offense more serious and justify more severe sentencing. For example, suppose you used a weapon during the robbery. In that case, it might result in a longer sentence.  Some common examples of aggravating circumstances in federal sentencing include the following:

  • Role in the offense: Suppose you played a significant role in the crime. Perhaps you were the leader or planned the offense. In that case, it could be an aggravating factor that causes you to receive a more severe sentence than other people involved in the same crime.
  • Using a deadly weapon: Suppose you used a weapon to commit the crime. This would usually increase the seriousness of the sentence.
  • Serious injury or death: Suppose someone is injured or killed in the commission of the crime. In that case, it would be considered an aggravating factor during federal sentencing.
  • Vulnerability of the victim: Suppose the victim was particularly vulnerable, such as a child or elderly person. It would be considered when the judge imposes a sentence in that case.
  • Prior criminal record: If you have a prior criminal history, it will certainly negatively impact you during sentencing.
  • Multiple victims: If your crime negatively impacted multiple people, it will be considered more severe and impact sentencing.
  • Recruiting minors: If you recruit minors to participate in the crime, you will be punished more severely for exploiting children.
  • The offense was committed in front of a child.
  • Evidence of prior planning.
  • An organized criminal group committed the crime.
  • The offense was motivated by financial or material gain.
  • Attempts to frustrate or impede the administration of justice.
  • You committed a crime while subject to pre-trial conditions.
  • You abused a position of power, authority, or trust.

What Are Mitigating Circumstances?

As noted, mitigating factors are the opposite of an aggravating circumstance and typically result in lighter penalties. Federal criminal defense attorneys use them as evidence to support lenient sentences, such as past abuse.

While they do not excuse a criminal act, they can provide context to reduce a sentence. Some ordinary mitigating circumstances include:

  • Playing a minor role: Suppose you played a minor or minimal role in the offense. In that case, it could persuade a judge to adjust your sentence downward.
  • Cooperation with federal authorities: If you provide substantial assistance to the authorities investigating the crime, it might be a factor to reduce your sentence.
  • First-time offender: If you have no criminal history, you will usually receive a lighter sentence than repeat offenders.
  • Mental or physical condition: This could apply if you suffered from a significant mental or physical condition during the offense, such as a mental illness or intellectual disability.
  • Personal history: If you had a complicated personal history contributing to criminal behavior, such as physical or sexual abuse, poverty, homelessness, or substance abuse, it could result in a lighter sentence.
  • Victim culpability: If the victim was partially culpable in leading to the crime, it might be considered a mitigating factor.
  • Acting under duress: It might reduce your sentence if you acted under exceptional circumstances, such as provocation or emotional distress.
  • You have shown remorse or good conduct following your arrest.
  • You are very young or very old.

How Can a Federal Defense Lawyer Help You? 

As discussed above, the federal court will consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances in deciding on a sentence. If you are a first-time offender who played a significant role in a violent crime, you could still face a severe sentence due to the seriousness of the offense.

When federal courts assess criminal cases, they must consider multiple factors discussed above to assist them in determining the appropriate punishment for an offender. 

Understanding how to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors is critical in these decisions. Having an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer to highlight your extenuating circumstances would be best.

Judges will use this evidence when determining outcomes to ensure justice is served and sentencing reflects the appropriate considerations. Contact our law firm for a free case review and to discuss legal options. The Hedding Law Firm is based in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding

What Makes Ronald Hedding Uniquely Qualified To Represent You? I've been practicing criminal defense for almost 30 years and have handled thousands of cases, including all types of state and federal sex crime cases. All consultations are discreet and confidential.

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