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Criminal Law Definition: What Is an Aggravator?

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. | Last updated on

The law has its own vocabulary, although often the words sound just like those we use in regular life. For example the word "aggravator" has a particular legal meaning in the context of criminal law, which is related to the way we use the word aggravation generally. Let's consider the term in the context of crime prosecution, where it arises during sentencing.

Criminal Aggravators

We use the word "aggravate" generally to indicate the intensification of negative circumstances, like, "The drilling right near my ears aggravated my headache." In that situation, the headache is an existing negative circumstance being made worse, or more grave, by someone drilling uncomfortably close. That's similar to how an aggravator is defined in criminal law.

A legal aggravator is a negative factor to be considered by a judge during sentencing. Aggravators make a sentence more severe, or more grave, and are defined by statute. Some are automatic, or mandatory, while some are optional, to be taken into consideration but not necessarily imposed obligatorily. Every state has its own criminal statutes that will tell a judge what can and must be considered at sentencing.

Sample Aggravator

Sometimes an aggravator is triggered by the location of a crime. Say that police find a doughnut full of Xanax pills in a school (which really did just happen). The underlying offense is possession of an illegal substance with intent to distribute, but the fact that the crime occurred at school aggravates the sentence.

Possession of drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or church will generally make a simple possession charge more severe. For example, in New Jersey, possession of marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school automatically requires a minimal imposition of fines and 100 hours of community service, in addition to the primary punishment for the underlying charge.

Some aggravators are very severe and some much less so. Regardless, every state has its own statutes that will dictate the extent to which a particular factor must or can impact a sentence.

A Minute on Mitigators

Mitigators are the opposite of aggravators. These are factors that make a sentence less severe, such as lack of a prior criminal record. Aggravators and mitigators exist in order to address the specifics of a particular crime, making it more or less severe under the actual circumstances in which it arose.

When a defendant is convicted of a crime, a judge punishes the person according to the requirements of state statutes for the particular offense and the individual's personal criminal record. Someone who has never been convicted of a crime will likely get a less severe sentence while repeat offenders will face a harsher punishment for the same act.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you have been charged with a crime, speak to a lawyer promptly. Many criminal defense attorneys consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to assess your case and explain the many factors that might impact the outcome of a prosecution.

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