Mitigating Circumstances in Law: Definition, Meaning & Examples

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt
Mitigating circumstances are factors in the commission of a crime that lessen or reduce its moral and legal consequences. These factors are weighed during sentencing against aggravating factors that may increase the penalty for a crime.

What are Mitigating Circumstances?

Pulled over
After being pulled over

After being pulled over, bright lights are flashing behind you and soon the police officer will walk over to ask if you know why you were pulled over. Perhaps you have the urge to say that you were going with the flow of traffic or your friend is going into labor. What you're searching for is some reason or mitigating circumstances to get out of your ticket. As we will see, mitigating circumstances in sentencing and criminal justice can extend to a variety of controversial areas.

Mitigating Circumstances: Definition

Mitigating circumstances are factors and conditions that do not excuse or justify an offense, but are taken to reduce the moral or legal culpability of the guilty party in terms of consequences. Mitigating circumstances are weighed during sentencing against their opposing aggravating circumstances, which increase the moral and offensive nature of the crime in question.

Mitigating Circumstances: Meaning

If we go back to the case of the traffic stop, the excuses you have may not actually mitigate your circumstances. In order to be a mitigating factor in the eyes of the law, the circumstance must be relevant and clearly connected to the offending action. So, for example, pointing out that someone else was driving faster really isn't a mitigating circumstance because it is not relevant to your action, whereas noting that you have an emergency provides a motive and is relevant to why you were speeding.

Mitigating Circumstances: Examples

When you are pulled over by the police officer, what factors should matter in determining how severe your ticket should be? In criminal sentencing, things that judges might consider are the age of the convict, if they have a clean criminal background, or whether they are the product of abuse. One of the more controversial mitigating circumstances is determining whether they were emotional at the time of the crime. A spouse who kills their partner when finding they were unfaithful might have their emotional state considered as a mitigating circumstance at the time of their crime.

Lawyer Clarence Darrow argued the case of Leopold and Loeb
Clarence Darrow

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