In present times, almost everybody relies on phones, electricity, and other utilities to function, for example, relaying and receiving information. Therefore, these things need to be up and running at all times, since if they fail, there may be several emergencies that would go unattended to. This may, in turn, result in death or severe injury. On this note, it won’t be best for you if it is discovered that you damaged a telephone, utility, or electrical wires to prevent communication. This is a severe offense that can lead to severe penalties if convicted.

If you have been arrested or charged with the crime of damaging or cutting phone, utility, or electrical lines, you ought to talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer. If you are in Los Angeles, CA, you can reach out to attorneys at Los Angeles Criminal Attorney. Our lawyers will do all they can to ensure you get the best possible results for your case. They will build a strong defense that could get you a dismissal or reduction of your charges. The sooner you reach out, the better for you since the lawyers will have ample time to scrutinize your case. In this article, we look at the law prohibiting damaging a phone, electrical, or utility line, possible defenses if charged, and the penalties upon conviction.

The Lawful Definition of Damaging Utility, Telephone, or Electrical Lines

Penal Code (PC) 591 is the California law that makes it an offense to maliciously injure, remove, obstruct, or disconnect wires or cables for telephone, electrical service, or any other equipment connected to the wires.

Damaging electrical, utility, or telephone lines under PC 591 is an offense that should be committed with a malicious intention for you to be convicted. This is a severe crime compared to vandalism, an offense of the same nature prosecuted under (PC 594). The reason PC 591 is treated severely, worth of strict penalties is that nowadays, more than before, people heavily rely on electricity and telephones to communicate as well as connect daily. Especially in the present era where communication is through the internet, people utilize them at the place of work and home. They are used for pleasure and also for business.

Also, we need electricity and telephone lines to ensure that we are capable of contacting emergency response personnel if need be. If you obstruct, disconnect, injure, or remove wires for cables or telephone service, you could get charged and found guilty of this offense. Often, violating PC 591 is prosecuted together with other crimes like burglary, domestic violence, etc.

Elements of PC 591

You will be convicted of cutting or damaging utility, electrical, or telephone lines under PC 591 if the prosecutor can prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that:

  • You took down, injured, removed, obstructed, disconnected, or cut
  • A telephone, telegraph, electrical line, cable television, or any device connected to the line, or
  • Severed a telegraph, cable television, telephone line, or any other line used for conducting electricity
  • Maliciously and unlawfully

Also, you can be convicted of this offense if the prosecutor can prove that you maliciously made an illegal connection with any other line, which is not a telephone, cable telephone, telegraph line, used for conducting electricity.

Examples of situations that may lead to PC 591 charges are:

  • Cutting your neighbor’s cable lines out of revenge or spite
  • Damaging telephone lines with criminal intent, for instance, so you can commit battery, assault, burglary, abuse, murder, etc.
  • Removing a battery from a cordless telephone to try to prevent a person from using it

Committing a given act ‘willfully’ means that you acted on purpose. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you had the intent to harm someone or violate the law. Therefore, you will still be found guilty of PC 591 even if you had no intention of damaging the telephone, utility, or electrical line, but had the purpose of doing the act that led to that damage.

For example, Brad and Alex have been husband and wife for ten years. After many years of being unhappy, Alex informs Brad that she doesn’t want to continue with the marriage anymore. She tells him that she has filed for a divorce. Brad is persuaded that there is another man Alex is leaving him for, but Alex assures him that there isn’t. Brad waits until Alex falls asleep and goes outside and tries tapping house phones so he can listen in on her conversations to know who the man was. In that process, instead of tapping the telephones successfully, he breaks the cable lines.

In this case, Brad has violated PC 591, destroying phone, utility, or electrical lines since he acted intentionally and willfully. Even if Brad’s intentions weren’t to destroy the cable lines but to just mess with them, his illegal tampering with telephone lines caused damage. And because he willfully did the tampering act, he could be convicted of PC 591.

Doing something maliciously, on the other hand, implies that you had every intention to hurt another party or do an unlawful act. In case you didn't act maliciously, the prosecutor cannot convict you of damaging electrical or phone lines. The courts in California have held that Penal Code 591 does not apply to only cutting or damaging wires. It can also apply to any act that damages or disables electrical equipment that is served by or connected to those wires.

Penalties for PC 591

Cutting telephone, cable, or electrical lines is a wobbler offense under California law. A wobbler means it may be prosecuted either as a felony or a misdemeanor. The prosecutor chooses how to charge you based on:

  • The precise nature of your offense. That is, the degree of damage you did in the commission of the offense, your alleged motive, and aggravated or mitigating factors.
  • Your criminal history
  • Misdemeanor penalties

If you are convicted of a misdemeanor damaging of electrical, phone, or utility wires, you will be subjected to the following consequences:

  • Misdemeanor probation
  • A maximum of one year in jail
  • A maximum fine of $1000
  • Felony consequences

When you are convicted of damaging electrical, phone, or utility lines as a felony, you will face the following punishments:

  • Felony probation
  • A fine not exceeding $10,000
  • Sixteen months or two or three years in jail under the state’s realignment program

Legal Defenses to PC 591 Charges

Facing PC 591 charges, damaging a telephone, electrical, or utility line can be challenging to fight solo. A competent and aggressive defense attorney may know the effective legal defenses to apply in your case and help you obtain the best possible results. Common PC 591 legal defenses your lawyer can apply to fight these charges include:

  • It was accidental

The defense of accident is among the most common legal defenses against the damaging phone, utility, or electrical wires offense.  As we mentioned earlier, you aren’t guilty of PC 591 if you didn’t act maliciously, i.e., with the intention of causing injury or harm. Cutting or damaging utility lines accidentally, regardless of how careless you were, can’t warrant a conviction under PC 591.

  • False allegations

If you didn’t injure, remove, damage, obstruct, or destroy a phone, electrical, or utility line, you cannot be found guilty of PC 591. Often, especially during allegations of domestic violence, the supposed victim may falsify the details of the occurrence to have the defendant wrongly convicted. This could happen out of revenge or spite if the victim wants to get rid of the defendant.

  • You didn’t have any intent to cut or damage phone, electrical, or utility line

Even if you damaged or cut the lines, if you didn’t have any intent, for instance, to prevent a person from calling the authorities, you cannot be found guilty of this offense.

  • Your act wasn’t malicious

If you didn't act out of malice when damaging or destroying the telephone lines, you shouldn’t be found guilty of this offense.

Related Offenses to PC 591

Related offenses to damaging telephone, utility, or electrical wires are those crimes that can be charged instead of or alongside PC 591. These crimes include:

  • Wiretapping (PC 631)

It is considered an offense under California law to tap or wiretap someone else’s telephone line with no permission from them unless you’re one of the law enforcement officers. Wiretapping is prosecuted as a wobbler offense. If you are facing a misdemeanor conviction, you will be subjected to a fine of up to $2500 and a maximum county jail sentence of one year. And if you are facing a felony conviction, you will be subjected to a fine not exceeding $10,000 and three or two years, or sixteen months of a prison sentence.

  • Vandalism (PC 594)

Vandalism law makes it an offense to maliciously and willfully deface someone's property with markings, graffiti, or otherwise destroying or damaging the said property. If the damage you caused in the commission of the crime was worth below $400, you might face misdemeanor charges. In this case, your punishment will include a maximum fine of $1000 and up to a year in county jail.

On the other hand, if the damage you cause in the commission of the offense was between $400 and $10,000, you may face felony charges. A felony conviction carries a fine of up to $10,000 and one to three years in jail.

  • Domestic Battery (PC 243e1)

Domestic battery is the unlawful and willful touching of someone else in a harmful manner. The supposed victim should be an ex or current spouse, girlfriend/boyfriend, cohabitant, fiancé (é), or the father or mother of your child. PC 243e1 makes this a criminal offense. Domestic battery is charged as a misdemeanor. In case of a conviction, the penalties will include summary probation, a maximum fine of $2000, and a county jail time of up to six months.

  • Corporal injury to an intimate partner or spouse (PC 273.5)

PC 273.5 is the law that defines corporal injury. It is the willful inflicting of physical injury on an ex or current intimate partner or spouse, and the injury leads to a traumatic condition. The bodily injury you cause counts as a corporal injury offense regardless of how minor it is. Corporal injury is also referred to as spousal injury, though it covers a lot more than just a spouse. According to this law, it is an offense to commit corporal injury.  PC 273.5 is a wobbler offense. It could be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony at the prosecutor’s discretion.  A misdemeanor conviction carries a maximum of $6000 in fines and a maximum of one year in jail. A felony conviction, on the other hand, carries a maximum of $6000 as fines and two, three, or four years in state prison.

  • Burglary (PC 459)

Burglary is the unlawful entering of a residence, property, or business premises with the intent of committing a felony or a theft while inside. This is considered a criminal offense under PC 459. Even if the theft or felonious act never eventually occurred, merely entering a residence or property with criminal intent is reason enough to be charged with burglary. Burglary charges are divided into two: first-degree and second-degree burglary. First-degree burglary occurs when a person breaks into a residence with the intent to commit a felony or a theft. On the other hand, a second-degree burglary occurs when a person breaks into a property or business premises.

Second-degree burglary is a wobbler offense. If convicted of a misdemeanor, the consequences will include summary probation, a maximum fine of $1000, and up to a year of a county jail sentence. If found guilty of a felony, you will face felony probation, a fine not exceeding $10,000, and 16 months, two or three years of a county jail sentence. First-degree residential burglary is not a wobbler, but it is always a felony. Its punishments include formal probation, a maximum of 10,000 dollars in fines, two, four, or six years in state prison, and a strike under the Three Strikes Law of California.

  • Stalking (PC 646.9)

PC 646.9 defines the offense of stalking. It makes it unlawful to follow, threaten, or harass someone else to the extent that the individual fears for their safety. Stalking is a wobbler offense. If you get convicted of a misdemeanor, you will be subjected to:

  • Summary probation
  • A fine not exceeding $1000
  • A maximum county jail sentence of one year
  • Confinement in a California-run mental illness facility
  • Counseling
  • The court will issue a restraining order on behalf of the supposed victim

A felony conviction carries the following penalties:

  • Formal probation
  • A maximum of $1000 in fines
  • Sixteen months to five years in state prison
  • Counseling
  • A maximum of one year in jail
  • You can be sentenced to confinement in a California-operated mental institution
  • The court may issue a restraining order on behalf of the supposed victim
  • Possible sex offender registration as per California’s PC 290
  • Harassment Laws

Non-sexual and sexual harassment must be reported at the place of work, and the employer has to respond quickly. In case the employer responds by taking corrective actions with the allegations, the supposed victim can’t sue the employer. However, the victim can sue his/her harasser. In case the employer doesn’t respond correctly to the allegations, they can be held responsible for the conduct due to their failure to handle the problem. This means that the alleged victim can sue his/her employer for not taking the appropriate corrective action.

  • Stand-alone hate crimes (PC 422.6)

A hate crime refers to committing a criminal act against someone else, which is motivated by prejudice against the given characteristics of the person. For instance, committing a criminal offense against a person due to his/her:

  • Gender
  • Disability
  • Nationality
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Ethnicity or race
  • His/her association with a group or person with similar characteristics

A misdemeanor conviction of PC 422.6 carries the following penalties: summary probation, up to $5000 in fines, up to a year in jail, and community service for 400 hours. The penalties under PC 422.7 and PC 422.75 are basically sentence enhancements. The prosecuting attorney can opt to enhance your charges to a felony.

If you’re found guilty of a misdemeanor and hate crime, your charges become a wobbler. By this, it means you can be charged with a felony depending on the specific facts of your case and your criminal history. Felony charges have these penalties: formal probation, sixteen months, two or three years in prison, up to $10000 in fines, or a penalty enhancement of one, two, or three years in prison.

Find an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

As we have seen, damaging or cutting a phone, electrical, or utility line is an offense that can attract severe consequences if found guilty. In case you or the person you love gets charged with this crime, you should seek the help of a knowledgeable and skilled criminal defense lawyer as quickly as possible. Attorneys at Los Angeles Criminal Attorney are highly experienced in assisting clients prosecuted for crimes like this. For more details on the offense of cutting or damaging of utility, electrical, or phone lines, or if you want to schedule a consultation, contact us at 424-333-0943. We serve clients in Los Angeles and its surrounding counties, who need help with the criminal charges against them.