According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, aggravate means “to make worse, more serious, or more severe; to intensify unpleasantly.”
Therefore, in criminal law, an aggravating factor is any circumstance related to the crime in question that somehow makes the crime itself worse. The phrase aggravating factor refers to any number of things including the manner in which the crime was committed, the reason or motivation behind the commission of the crime or the tool used to commit the crime.
Why are Aggravating Factors Important?
If you are convicted of a crime, any related aggravating factors could greatly increase your penalty. For example, if you receive an imprisonment sentence, you could face an increase in the number of years required to serve. Or if you face a monetary fine, the aggravating factors could increase the penalty significantly.
What are Some Examples of Aggravating Factors?
The list of what can be considered an aggravating factor is determined by statue and as such varies widely by jurisdiction. Some examples of commonly accepted factors include: prior criminal record, intent, tool(s) used to commit the crime, cruelty, and treason.
How Can I Prevent Aggravating Factors From Being Used Against Me?
The typical method of preventing the use of aggravating factors in a trial is to make the evidence inadmissible. The first way to do this is to call the evidence irrelevant to the case at hand. This is actually a low threshold for prosecutors to meet.
Successful denial of an aggravating factor on the basis of relevancy might be a defendant’s marksmanship with a rifle in a case where the defendant used a knife to commit homicide. This same information might be very relevant though if the defendant used a gun to kill another person.
The next factor in admitting an aggravating factor is to determine whether the evidence would prejudice the jury against the defendant in an unfair manner. For example, the fact the defendant had multiple affairs outside of his marriage might prejudice the jury against the defendant. This information would be admissible if the defendant killed his wife. If the victim is just a woman the defendant had brief contact with though, then the information would not serve any purpose other than to distract the jury.
Finally, even if aggravating factors are admitted into trial, the defense could raise mitigating factors to try to reduce the sentence. Mitigating factors is any circumstance related to the crime in question that would reduce the defendant’s sentence. Such factors can include, but are not limited to: mental state, lack of a prior criminal record, and the (minor) role the defendant played in the crime.
Can Aggravating Factors Be Raised As a Reason To Postpone My Release?
In some states, aggravating factors can still be used against the defendant after the initial trial, such as hearings for release or probation.