California property crimes entail any damage or destruction to property or entering property without the owner's consent. Unlike theft crimes, property crimes do not entail taking away property or goods from the owner. Also, these crimes do not generally involve using force like in violent crimes — for instance, merely entering another person’s property can lead to a property crime allegation of trespassing.
California property crimes generally include arson, trespass, damaging utility lines, and vandalism. These crimes have specific penalties, which can be enhanced depending on aggravating circumstances of the case. Nonetheless, you have to retain the services of a criminal defense attorney to help defend you and possibly avoid the negative repercussions of a conviction. If you are facing any charges of property crimes in the Los Angeles area, talk to us at Los Angeles Criminal Attorney today.
Penal code 451, arson laws, prohibit setting fire to a structure, property, or forestry land.
For you to be convicted under PEN 451, you must have acted maliciously or willfully while setting fire to property, structure, or forestry land. Thus, this law is usually referred to as malicious arson law.
Under the law, property refers to personal property like land (apart from forest land), cars, boats, clothing, furniture, etc. Note that burning property is an arson crime if the property is another person’s property. Burning your property can only lead to arson charges if your intention was fraud or another person was injured or their property damaged.
Under arson laws, structures refer to buildings, tunnels, public/commercial tents, and power plants. Forest land refers to public land covered by woods, forests, brush, grasslands, etc.
Malicious arson is punished as a felony offense with these consequences:
Prison sentence of 16 months, two years, or three years for personal property
Two, four, or six years imprisonment for a structure or forest land
Three, five, or eight years imprisonment for an inhabited structure or property
Five, seven, or nine years imprisonment for causing great bodily injury
Up to $10,000 in fines
A “strike” under The Three Strikes Law
An additional $50,000 fine or double the profit you gained from the action
Reckless arson or reckless burning under Penal Code 452 does not entail malice; that is, you did not intend to burn the property, structure, or forest land. However, you must have acted with total disregard for safety. This (recklessness) can be proven if you were aware that your action had a risk of igniting a fire, you ignored the significant risk, and your action was in total contrast to what another reasonable person would do under the same circumstance.
Reckless arson is usually a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum jail sentence of six months and/or a maximum fine of $1000.
Reckless burning can also be prosecuted as a wobbler offense. If the property is a structure or forest land, you could face a felony punishment of 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years imprisonment. For an inhabited structure or property, the felony punishment includes 2, 3, or 4 years imprisonment while the felony punishment for causing significant bodily injury is 2, 4, or 6 years imprisonment.
An aggravated arson involves the following aggravating factors:
A prior arson conviction
Your action led to significant bodily injury to a firefighter, an officer, or any other emergency personnel
There are two or more victims with significant injuries
There are multiple structures
You acted in revenge
The structure is a place of worship and you knew it is a worship place
Other aggravating factors would significantly increase your sentence or fines depending on your case. In aggravated arson cases, the judge has the discretion to sentence you for even ten years in prison depending on these factors. You could also be required to register as an arson offender.
Penal Code 602 is the law governing the crime of trespassing in California. Generally, trespassing involves going to someone’s property or remaining on someone’s property without the property owner’s consent or without the right to do so.
Trespassing is perhaps one of the most complicated property crimes because of the many actions that could lead to criminal charges. California law has over thirty actions that could lead to trespass charges. Some of these are:
Entering someone’s property with the intent to damage the property
Entering and occupying another person’s property without their permission
Refusing to leave private property after the owner asks you to leave
Entering another person’s property with the intent to obstruct or interfere with activities conducted there
Refusing airport or courthouse screening
Taking stones or sand from another person’s land without their consent
Harvesting fish from someone’s property without their permission
Notwithstanding the many activities that could lead to a trespass charge, you can only be found guilty if specific elements are proven. First, you must have wilfully entered someone else’s property. Here, wilfully means you deliberately entered the property with the intention to perform the alleged action, which doesn’t necessarily mean to commit a crime.
Another element is specific intent. While the court has the discretion to decide whether you had a specific intent for entering a property, the prosecution should show why and how your action led to the alleged outcome. For example, a homeless person walks into a restaurant to buy a sandwich from the proceeds of begging. Many costumes walk out of the restaurant because of his odor and appearance. While his intention was not to interfere with the business in that place, the business nonetheless was interfered with —But he had no specific intent to do so.
Another element of trespass is that you interfered with the property rights or business. Here, the prosecution must prove that you went ahead to accomplish the specific intent of interfering with property rights or business. The final element of occupying property means remaining in the property and refusing to leave after being asked to do so.
Trespassing is usually charged as an infraction or a misdemeanor. An infraction could lead to a maximum fine of 75 dollars for a first offense or up to 250 dollars for trespassing on the same property for a second time. An infraction trespass usually occurs if you wilfully entered someone else’s property without their permission, and the property is fenced or conspicuously marked “no trespassing.”
A misdemeanor trespass involves trespassing on the same property three times. The jail sentence, in this case, is usually six months but you could also be jailed for up to one year depending on the circumstances of your case. You might also be required to pay a fine not exceeding $1000.
An aggravated trespass has the elements of criminal trespass under Penal Code 602, but it has aggravating factors that could lead to injuries to victims. Otherwise known as felony trespass, aggravated trespass is charged under Penal Code 601 and has far more severe consequences, including a lengthy prison sentence.
Under Penal Code 601, you face aggravated trespass if you threatened another person with physical injury, then entered their property or workplace without the owner’s permission. In summary, aggravated trespass happens if:
You made a credible threat to cause harm to another person,
You made the threat with the intention of putting the person in reasonable fear for their own safety or the safety of their family members,
You illegally entered the person’s property or workplace planning to execute the threat, within 30 days of making the threat, AND
You knew that the property you entered is a business premise or home of the alleged victim.
Under the law, a credible threat does not have to be oral; it can be electronic or in writing. To be credible, the threat must make someone else fear for their personal safety or the safety of their family members and must show that the person issuing the threat is capable of executing it.
Reasonable fear means that the person believed that the person issuing the threat could indeed harm them or their family. The prosecution will try to prove that the person issuing the threat indeed wanted to cause reasonable fear to another person. This could be determined through a number of issues, including whether there is any relationship between the defendant and victim, how the alleged victim reacted to the threat, whether the defendant and victim have met before, if any other person was present, any conduct of the victim and defendant, etc.
The victim must have also feared for their safety or the safety of their family members. Under the law, a family member is your parent, child, spouse, grandparent, grandchildren, brother, sister, or a person who visits your home regularly or lives at your place.
Punishments for Aggravated Trespass
Aggravated trespass is usually charged as a wobbler. This means the prosecutor will review the circumstances of the case before deciding on whether to charge it a misdemeanor or felony.
As a misdemeanor, you will face the following punishments:
A maximum fine of $2,000
A maximum jail sentence of one year
An informal/ misdemeanor/ summary probation
As a felony, you will face these punishments:
A maximum fine of $10,000
A maximum sentence of three years
A formal/ felony probation
Aggravated trespass can also affect your gun rights depending on whether it is punished as a misdemeanor or felony. California gun laws prohibit people who have been convicted of a felony offense from acquiring or possessing a gun. As a result, you will not be allowed to possess or acquire a gun if you are convicted of felony trespass, and the law requires you to surrender the firearm if you already own one.
Another serious repercussion of felony trespass is that you are likely to be inadmissible to the country or deported from the country.
Expungement of Aggravated Trespass
Since aggravated trespass charges have consequences that could affect your gun rights as well as lead to deportation, your primary aim should be to have a defense strategy that could possibly lead to misdemeanor changes or have the charges dropped. If this does not happen and you are convicted, then you can have your conviction expunged so that it does not affect your gun rights and immigration status.
Under expungement laws, you can only kick-start the expungement process once you have completed probation, you are not facing any criminal offense, you have finished your full jail or prison term, and you are not serving a sentence for any other crime. Once you have met these requirements, you can consult with a Los Angeles defense attorney to help you through the expungement process.
California vandalism laws fall under PEN 594. To be charged with vandalism, the prosecutor must prove the following:
You maliciously damaged, destroyed, or defaced property with graffiti,
You did not own the destroyed, damaged, or defaced property or you own it with another person, AND
The amount of damage, destruction, or defacement is less than $400 in a misdemeanor vandalism case or more than $400 in a felony vandalism case.
Defacing, destroying, or damaging property with graffiti entails any unauthorized drawing or writing on a real or personal property using any kind of tool. This could include the use of written designs, scratching, drawings, paintings, inscriptions, figures, marks, etc.
Owning property is not an obvious element. If it is a public property such as a public park, you have no rights to ownership of the property; so the judge will assume you did not own the property. In other cases, you can be charged with vandalism even if you owned the property — for example, you can face vandalism charges if you damage a property that you jointly own with your spouse, such as your home.
Acting maliciously means acting intentionally to do something wrong or acting with the illegal intent of annoying or injuring another person.
Vandalism is similar to petty theft and grand theft because all these offenses are fined depending on the amount or value of goods or damages (petty theft is for goods worth less than $950 while grand theft is for goods worth more than $950). In the case of vandalism, the amount of damages, defacement, or destruction is the total amount that it will require to repair the damaged, defaced, or destroyed property. This will in turn determine whether the charges will be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a wobbler. Misdemeanor vandalism occurs when the amount is less than $400 while wobbler vandalism occurs when the amount is above $400.
Misdemeanor vandalism carries these penalties:
A jail sentence not exceeding one year
A fine not exceeding $1,000 for a first offense and $5,000 for a subsequent offense
An informal probation
The prosecutor can charge you with a direct felony if you committed a vandalism act that resulted in over $400 in damages OR you committed several acts with the same intent, whose total costs of destruction (when added) exceeds $400. Thus, you can be convicted of misdemeanor vandalism if the prosecutor charges you with felony vandalism, but cannot prove that the damages exceed $400. Also, a misdemeanor can arise depending on your criminal history and the circumstances of your case, whether or not the damages exceed $400.
If the amount of damages exceeds $400 AND your case is a misdemeanor, you face:
A maximum jail sentence of one year
Up to $10,000 in fine or $50,000 if the damage exceeds $10,000
A summary probation
If the amount of damages exceeds $400 AND your case is a felony, you face:
A maximum fine of $10,000 or $50,000 if the amount of damages exceeds $10,000
Probation with up to one year in jail OR 16 months, two years, or three years in jail
California Graffiti Laws: PEN 640.5/6
Prosecutors usually charge vandalism as a misdemeanor if the damages are less than $400. However, they have the discretion to charge vandalism under graffiti laws for damages less than $250, which has less severe penalties. In the latter case, the penalties depend on whether it is the first, second, or subsequent conviction.
The first conviction under graffiti laws is an infraction, where you will be required to pay up to $1,000 in fines and perform community service.
The second conviction under graffiti laws is a misdemeanor but with less severe penalties compared to misdemeanor vandalism under PC 594. Here, you can spend a maximum of six months in jail and/or pay a maximum fine of $2,000. You might also be required to perform community service.
For subsequent conviction under graffiti laws, you face a maximum jail sentence of one year and a maximum fine of $3,000 in addition to or an alternative to community service.
There are other forms of vandalism that are separately punished:
Vandalizing on or near a highway or freeway under Penal Codes 640.7 and 640.8
Vandalism involving caustic chemicals: Penal Code 594.4
Vandalizing places of worship: Penal Code 594.3
Vandalism Probation Conditions
If you are sentenced to probation, you will be required to adhere to these probation conditions:
Driver’s license suspension for a maximum of two years
Community service like repairing, cleaning, or replacing damaged property
Ensure the property is kept “graffiti free” for up to a year
Damaging Phone, Electrical, or Utility Lines
Penal Code 591 is the law prohibiting the act of damaging or obstructing electrical or telephone lines. To be found guilty, the prosecutor must prove that you maliciously took down, obstructed, damaged, disconnected, or removed an electrical line or mechanical equipment connected to the electrical line. This property crime can also be considered a domestic violence crime in cases where the intent is revenge or denying a spouse the right to use the electrical line.
Damaging phone, electrical, or utility lines is a wobbler offense. As a misdemeanor, it carries a maximum jail sentence of one year. The maximum sentence is three years if it is a felony. Alternatively, you might get informal probation instead of a sentence in jail.
General Defenses for Property Crimes
The above property crimes have different punishments under specific laws. This means the elements of the crime slightly vary from crime to crime, but there are elements that make all of them be categorized as property crimes. These general elements are acting with malice and you do not own the alleged property fully. Therefore, regardless of the charges you are facing, you can expect to base your defense strategy on these issues.
No Malice/ Your Action was Accidental: Acting maliciously means you had the intention to do a wrong act and went ahead to do it. Your defense should show that the act was an accident and you did not intend to do it. For instance, you might have faced trespassing charges yet you only accessed the property because you were lost.
Ownership Rights: In most cases, you will face charges relating to property crimes if the alleged property is someone else’s property. So you can prove evidence showing that you own the alleged property. You can also show that you had permission to access or use the alleged property. Note that you can also face charges if you own the property — for example, you can face vandalism charges if you vandalize property jointly owned with your spouse.
Contact a Property Crimes Defense Attorney Near Me
There are different defenses that apply to different property crime charges. An experienced attorney will evaluate the case circumstances and devise a strategy that could help you win. Thus, your first step when you learn that you are facing property crime charges should be contacting an attorney. This might also help you avoid a court case because your attorney might negotiate a plea deal or have the charges dropped.
If you are facing arson, trespass, damaging utility/electrical lines, or vandalism charges in the Los Angeles area, get in touch with Los Angeles Criminal Attorney at 424-333-0943 today.