Defacing another person’s property or government is vandalism, a crime per Penal Code 594. The charges and penalties depend on the value of the property damage. You will face misdemeanor charges if the property value exceeds $400. If the damage exceeds $400, expect felony charges. A conviction on vandalism charges is consequential. You can challenge the allegations with the right legal help and have them reduced or dismissed. Contact the Los Angeles Criminal Attorney for assistance.
How California Law Defines Vandalism
What comes to mind when vandalism is mentioned is children smashing cars and building windows, egging houses, or graffitiing other people’s property. Additional activities include keying other people’s vehicles, writing your name in wet cement on another individual’s freshly layered sidewalk, or breaking someone else’s property during a fight. The list of activities that could result in vandalism charges is not exhaustive as long as they meet Penal Code 594’s definition. Further, vandalism cases are not limited to children. Adults, too, can be charged with and convicted of vandalism.
PC 594’s definition of vandalism revolves around three facts that prosecutors must prove to secure your conviction. These elements are:
- You maliciously defaced someone else's property with graffiti or an inscribed material or destroyed or damaged another person’s property
- The property belonged to another, or you did not own it
- The defacement, destruction, or damage amounted to less than $400, or more than $400
Let us address each element in detail.
Defacing Property With Graffiti or Another Inscribed Material
Graffiti or other inscribed material refers to unauthorized words, figures, inscriptions, or designs marked, written, scratched, etched, painted, or drawn on personal or real property, regardless of their nature or content.
The permanency of the defacement, whether from the graffiti or other inscribed material or the tools used in the defacement, is immaterial.
Personal property refers to items an individual owns, for example, cars, a house, furniture, or other belongings. Real property, on the other hand, includes buildings and land.
Property You Did Not Own or Owned By Another Individual
This element, at face value, seems obvious. However, there are additional factors to consider: public and jointly owned property.
Vandalism on public property involves defacing, destroying, or damaging any property owned by the government or its agencies, including school buildings, park benches, sidewalks, or traffic signs. The law allows the jury to assume you did not own the property.
On jointly owned property, you can face vandalism charges if you deface, destroy, or damage property you jointly own with another. Therefore, a husband could face vandalism charges if he defaces, destroys, or vandalizes property he jointly owns with his wife.
You act maliciously if you intentionally commit a wrongful act or act with an unlawful intent to injure or annoy another person. However, it does not necessarily mean you intend to break the law. Therefore, if the defacing, destruction, or damage to another person’s property was an accident, you are not guilty of vandalism.
Degree of Damage
PC 594 sets $400 as the baseline value of property damage. You will face misdemeanor charges if the damage costs less than $400. Should the cost exceed $400, the offense becomes a wobbler. That is, you will either face misdemeanor or felony charges. The penalties you will receive upon conviction depend on the value of the damage you cause.
Prosecutors would charge you with one count of vandalism for one or more acts of vandalism if the acts were part of the same plan or intention. The cost factor still applies. Therefore, if the cumulative damage is valued at less than $400, you will face misdemeanor charges. Should the value exceed $400, you will face felony charges.
For different acts of vandalism that are not part of the same plan or intention, prosecutors will pursue separate counts of vandalism.
It is worth noting that being charged with a felony does not mean an outright conviction on felony charges. The prosecution bears the burden of proving the value of the defacement or damage exceeds $400. If the jury determines the value to be less than $400, you will face misdemeanor penalties upon conviction.
Prosecutors will pursue Vehicle Code 10853 violation charges for defacing, destroying, or damaging a car. Under this statute, you will face misdemeanor violation charges, whose conviction results in a jail sentence of up to six months and a possible fine of $1,000.
Defenses You Can Raise in a Vandalism Case
Work with an experienced attorney to formulate a winning defense strategy. He/she will assess your case and determine the ideal defense to assert. Here is a look at a few.
You Are a Victim of a Wrongful Arrest
In some situations, the actual offenders claim the defendant is the perpetrator to misdirect investigators. The offenders could go as far as offering false testimony. This is common in situations where one group member vandalized another’s property and convinced the group to single out the defendant as the perpetrator.
If you find yourself in this situation, your attorney will conduct an independent investigation to ascertain the truth. Some likely witnesses would testify to seeing the actual perpetrator. Further, establishing your alibi at the time of the incident will go a long way in demonstrating you were not the offender.
Additionally, your attorney could show the jury a pattern of lying by a witness to question why the jury should believe his/her testimony in the case.
All these efforts seek to create reasonable doubt.
Your Actions Were an Accident
Vandalism does lead to property losses. However, the state’s push for a conviction to punish you and, in the process, deter others from behaving in a similar manner does not give them room to assert that you acted with malice. The state bears the burden of proving malice in your actions.
However, an accident, despite resulting in losses, should be treated as an accident. Your attorney will argue that your actions were the result of a lapse in judgment or unintentional acts. Thus, you did not violate vandalism laws.
Case of Mistaken Identity
It is possible that witnesses in the case misidentified you. The police officers could have acted on a general description offered by the witnesses, and you fit the description. In other situations, you were present with the group responsible for the defaced or destroyed property, but you did not personally deface, destroy, or damage the property.
Arguing that you were mistakenly identified as the perpetrator would work if your attorney finds compelling evidence that warrants the use of this defense.
False allegations in vandalism cases are common. These instances are prevalent in domestic violence situations that result in vandalized property. A romantic partner could accuse a defendant of vandalism as retribution. In other scenarios, the accusation could be motivated by anger or jealousy.
Whatever the case, your attorney will use this defense to challenge the charges if you were falsely accused of vandalism.
Penalties for Vandalism
PC 594 outlines penalties depending on the circumstances of your case. The penalties vary depending on the following:
- The value of the damage in the case,
- Your prior vandalism convictions, and
- The vandalized property.
If the jury finds you guilty of vandalizing property and causing damage valued at less than $400, you will face the following penalties:
- A jail sentence of up to one year,
- A fine not exceeding $1,000 or $5,000 if you have a prior vandalism conviction or both
- Summary or informal probation as an alternative to jail time — The preceding judge will impose the following conditions for your probation.
- Mandatory counseling
- Community service
- Suspension of your driver’s license for no less than two years — If you do not have a driver’s license, a one to three-year delay on your eligibility to obtain it
- Tasked with keeping the affected property graffiti-free for at least one year.
If the damage is valued at $400 or more, vandalism becomes a wobbler. This means that the prosecution will decide whether to pursue misdemeanor or felony violation charges depending on the circumstances of your case and your criminal history.
If the damage value is at least $400 and you are convicted on misdemeanor charges under PC 594, you could face the following penalties:
- A jail sentence of up to one year,
- A fine not exceeding $10,000, or $50,000 if the value of the damage is at least $10,000 or more, or both.
- Formal probation with conditions similar to summary probation (as outlined above)
If the damage value is at least $400 and you are convicted on misdemeanor charges under PC 595, malicious mischief, you could face the following penalties:
- Either of the following:
- Formal probation and a jail sentence of up to one year or
- 16 months, two, or three years in jail
- A maximum fine of $10,000, or $50,000, if the value of the damage is at least $10,000 or more, or both.
Note: Malicious mischief refers to someone defacing, damaging, or destroying property without the owner’s consent.
It bears emphasizing that if you served probation terms or your prior vandalism convictions on at least two occasions, you would serve a jail or prison sentence for the subsequent conviction.
Graffiti With Property Damage Valued at Less than $250
In incidents where the value of the damage is less than $250, prosecutors pursue PC 640.5 and PC 640.6 violation charges. The penalties under the two statutes depend on whether your current vandalism charge is a first-time offense or a second or subsequent offense. Further, these statutes are specific to graffiti-related vandalism not exceeding $250.
If the cost of repairs does not exceed $250 and you are facing charges as a first-time vandalism offender, your offense is an infraction. The penalties imposed on infraction offenders are:
- A fine penalty not exceeding $1,000
- Community service
If the repair cost exceeds $250 and you have a prior vandalism conviction, your current charge becomes a misdemeanor. However, the penalties you will receive are less than those PC 594 imposes.
Misdemeanor penalties under PC 640.5 and PC 640.6 include the following:
- Up to six months in jail,
- A maximum fine of $2,000, or both.
- Community service.
Third and Subsequent Convictions
A conviction for vandalism under PC 640.5 and PC 640.6 with two or more prior vandalism convictions results in misdemeanor penalties, which include:
- Up to one year in jail,
- A maximum fine of $3,000, or both.
- Community service
Penalties for Other Types of Vandalism
PC 594 describes vandalism. However, various other statutes address vandalism under specific circumstances. That is, they focus on the type of vandalism and not on the value of the damage. These statutes also outline the various penalties a defendant will face should he/she be convicted.
Vandalism of Places of Worship
Vandalizing synagogues, temples, churches, mosques, or other places designated for worship or religious education results in prosecution under Penal Code 594.3.
Misdemeanor offenses result in:
- Jail sentences of up to one year,
- Fines not exceeding $1,000, or both.
- Summary probation with terms similar to those stated above
Felony offenses result in:
- Incarceration for 16 months, two or three years,
- Fines not exceeding $10,000, or both.
- Summary probation with terms similar to those stated above.
Note: If the prosecution proves you vandalized a place of worship as a hate crime, that is, you vandalized the place of worship intending to scare or intimidate the victims because of their religious beliefs, your actions result in felony penalties.
Furthermore, if found guilty of vandalizing a mortuary or cemetery, felony penalties are likely.
Vandalism With Caustic Chemicals
If you use butyric acid or other caustic chemicals, substances, or similar noxious chemicals, you violate Penal Code 594.3. This action results in misdemeanor or felony charges.
Convictions on misdemeanor charges result in:
- A jail sentence of no more than six months and
- A maximum fine of between $1,000 and $50,000, depending on the value of the damage.
- Summary probation
Convictions on felony charges, on the other hand, result in:
- Incarceration for 16 months, two or three years, and
- A maximum fine of between $1,000 and $50,000, depending on the value of the damage.
- Formal probation.
Vandalism on or Near a Freeway or Highway
- A maximum of six months in jail for first-time offenders for vandalism on or near a highway and a maximum of one year in jail for second-time offenders for vandalism on or near a freeway
- A fine not exceeding $1,000 for vandalizing property near a highway, and a maximum of $5,000 for vandalizing property on or near a freeway
- Community service or counseling
Expunging a Vandalism Conviction
You can only expunge your vandalism conviction if you were convicted on misdemeanor charges and have completed your probation. However, a judge could deny your expungement request if you violated your probation terms and faced probation violation terms.
Additionally, the courts can grant you an early termination of your probation if you comply with the set terms and conditions for the first year or two.
If convicted of felony vandalism, the courts could reduce your charges to a misdemeanor violation. The reduction is possible when your attorney files a PC 17(b) motion. However, a judge grants this petition only if the vandalism charges were a wobbler offense. Defense attorneys file this motion at any of the following stages:
- At the end of the preliminary hearing — These hearings determine whether the prosecution has sufficient evidence to justify a trial. Defense attorneys will argue that the prosecution lacks sufficient evidence. A judge will later decide whether the matter will proceed to trial. If it does, he/she could potentially reduce the charges to a misdemeanor.
- At sentencing — These are court proceedings where the judge imposes penalties if convicted. Defense attorneys present mitigating circumstances to demonstrate why the penalties should be reduced. Prosecutors, on the other hand, present aggravating circumstances supporting harsher penalties. A judge could therefore rule to have you serve misdemeanor penalties if the mitigating circumstances outway the aggravating circumstances, or
- When you complete your felony probation
Benefits of Expungement
You might wonder why expungement is necessary. Expungement offers the following benefits:
- Your felony conviction, if reduced to a misdemeanor, or your misdemeanor vandalism conviction will not appear in your record when someone runs a background check. Thus you will find it easier to secure employment, credit, or housing.
- Your second amendment rights will be restored
- You can obtain a professional license
- You can serve on a jury when called upon to
Crimes Prosecutors Can Add to Your Charge Sheet
Prosecutors can choose from various offenses related to vandalism to charge you alongside or instead of vandalism. They could pursue the following charges:
- Trespass — A violation of PC 602
- Damaging an electric or a telephone line — A violation of PC 591
It is a violation of PC 602 to willfully enter another person’s property without a right to do so or permission from the owner. Typical acts interpreted as trespass include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Entering someone else’s property to damage or destroy his/her property
- Entering and occupying another person’s property
- Entering another individual’s property to obstruct or interfere with the business operations conducted on the property
- Refusing to vacate another’s property after being required to do so
- Refusing screening at a courthouse or airport
- Taking dirt, soil, or stones from another person’s land without permission
Penalties if Convicted of Trespass
Trespass will result in infraction, misdemeanor, or felony penalties, depending on the circumstances of your case.
An infraction is punishable by a fine of $75 for first-time offenders and $250 for a second offense on the same land. Prosecutors must prove that you deliberately entered someone else's land without permission and that the land had a no-trespassing sign or was enclosed with a fence.
Misdemeanors are punishable by up to six months in jail and a possible fine of up to $1,000.
Felony or aggravated trespass is addressed under PC 601. Trespass is a felony if;
- You threaten to injure another to cause the victim to fear for his/her life, and
- You enter the property or workplace within thirty days of making the threat.
Aggravated trespass is a wobbler. If convicted of misdemeanor charges, you could face up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. On the other hand, a conviction on felony charges results in up to three years in jail and a maximum fine of $10,000.
Damaging an Electric or a Telephone Line
You will face charges under PC 591 for maliciously disconnecting, removing, obstructing, cutting, or injuring an electric, cable, or telephone line.
Prosecutors must establish the following facts:
- You illegally removed, took down, obstructed, damaged, or disconnected a cable television, telegraph, telephone, or electric line.
- You acted maliciously
Note: You are guilty under PC 591 if you remove a battery from another person’s cell phone.
Penalties if Convicted of Damaging an Electric or a Telephone Line
Penal Code 591 violations are wobbler offenses. The choice of what charges to pursue depends on the circumstances of your case and your prior convictions.
Misdemeanor convictions result in a jail sentence of up to one year or summary probation. If convicted of felony violations, you will likely face up to three years in prison or serve formal probation.
Find a Skilled Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me
The help of an experienced attorney is invaluable. Early pretrial interventions could result in reduced sentences or dismissal of the charges. However, should the case proceed to trial, your attorney will assert any of the above defenses to challenge the prosecution’s case to secure a favorable legal outcome. Our team at the Los Angeles Criminal Attorney will review your case and use our experience to fight the vandalism charges. Contact us at 424-333-0943 today for more information.