Aggravating Circumstances in California

In California, like other jurisdictions, judges can use a variety of factors to increase sentences.

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In California, as in other states and federal court, judges consider aggravating circumstances when sentencing a defendant convicted of a crime. Aggravating circumstances are any facts that merit the judge imposing a harsher sentence. The judge will also consider any mitigating circumstances, facts that might persuade the judge to impose a milder sentence. Judges usually have wide discretion in interpreting and applying aggravating and mitigating circumstances to determine a defendant’s sentence.

To learn more about aggravating circumstances generally, see Aggravating Circumstances in Sentencing.

Making a Bad Act Worse

Aggravating circumstances comprise any facts that make a crime more reprehensible. For instance, robbery is bad enough, but is worse when the victim is a child or helpless grandmother. Likewise, a judge sentencing a defendant for rape might increase the punishment if the defendant committed the act while knowingly having a sexually transmitted disease. Judges can consider other factors, too, like a defendant’s arrest record or the fact that he or she was out on bail at the time of the offense.

Judges can use almost any fact to increase punishment, as long as it is supported by evidence in the record of court proceedings. One aggravating circumstance alone is enough for a judge to impose a stricter punishment.

California's Aggravating Circumstances

Aggravating circumstances consist of two types:

  • facts relating to the crime, like use of a weapon, and
  • facts relating to the defendant, such as a violent criminal history.

The following are common aggravating circumstances that judges in California use to impose harsher sentences. This list is by no means complete—there are other facts that a judge can or must use to increase punishment.

Great Violence or Bodily Harm. The defendant was especially cruel and callous in the commission of the crime and it resulted in serious harm to the victim. This is not just any harm, but significant harm. For example, a defendant who repeatedly hits or kicks a robbery victim would likely face a more stringent sentence for using excessive violence.

Use of a Weapon. This is one of the most common aggravating factors. Using a weapon during the commission of a crime will usually get a defendant a harsher punishment. And the sentence will be even tougher if the weapon is stolen.

Multiple Victims. If the defendant is convicted of only one count, but there were multiple victims, the judge can choose to enhance the sentence. A judge can’t use this factor the defendant has been convicted of multiple counts, one for each victim.

Vulnerable Victim. It’s best if a defendant chooses to pick on someone the same size—judges will often increase a sentence if the victim was particularly vulnerable. This vulnerability could be because of age or disability, or it could be because the victim was sleeping or intoxicated. This factor applies to any situation in which a victim is less able than most to defend against the crime.

Defendant’s Role. The defendant was the ringleader or induced others to participate, or involved a minor in the crime. For example, selling drugs to children is an aggravating circumstance. This category also includes situations where the defendant abused a position of trust: A babysitter kidnapping the children and a county official cheating the public would likely get stiffer punishments.

Defendant’s Record. The defendant has a violent nature or history, prior convictions, or a prior prison term, or has performed poorly on previous probation or parole. This aggravating factor includes committing a crime while on probation or parole.

Planning or Sophistication. It’s better if a defendant is a novice who just stumbled into the crime or acted spontaneously. Any evidence of significant planning (with plenty of time to reconsider) or criminal sophistication can aggravate a sentence.

Interference with Judicial Process. The defendant interfered with the court proceedings in an attempt to influence the outcome. This includes threatening witnesses, perjury, or any other illegal attempt to influence the outcome of the case.

Value or Quantity. The crime involved a large amount of contraband or expensive goods. A large quantity of drugs involved in a sale or a very valuable stolen item will likely increase punishment.

Statutorily Required. California law requires judges to consider certain crimes as inherently involving aggravating circumstances, including:

  • robbing a pharmacist
  • robbing or assaulting a person in a religious institution
  • a hate crime
  • a drug offense involving methamphetamine
  • harming someone who is in a domestic relationship with the defendant
  • selling drugs to a child younger than 12, and
  • committing certain felony sex offenses in school zones.

Not So Fast: Facts That Aren’t Aggravating Circumstances

While California judges can interpret many facts as aggravating circumstances, courts have drawn the line as to what they can and cannot consider. A judge may not apply the following as aggravating circumstances:

  • a defendant choosing to go to trial
  • danger to a defendant if released
  • bereavement of a victim’s family (but this factor can sometimes come into play, such as in death penalty cases), and
  • a defendant’s status as a foreigner.

Despite some limitations, judges have considerable latitude; they can use many facts about the defendant and the crime to justify a stiffer penalty. Aggravating circumstances show that how and why a defendant committed a crime are crucial sentencing considerations.

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