What is Vandalism in California?
California vandalism charges may be levied as either misdemeanors or felonies and carry multiple potential sentences depending on the estimated monetary cost of the damaged, defaced, or destroyed property.
Vandalism is defined by Penal Code 594 PC as any type of malicious activity that damages, defaces, or destroys the property of another person. The property may not be solely owned by the person charged with vandalism. The monetary value in damages, defacement or destruction must be under $400 for a misdemeanor charge or $400 or more for a felony charge.
Although most people think of vandalism as a rowdy activity only carried out by teenagers or spray painters, other activities may qualify for vandalism charges.
For instance, an individual keying or scratching the car of another out of a petty act of revenge, or in order to deliberately lower the value of the vehicle, will often qualify as vandalism. Breaking the personal property of one's spouse in an act of anger or during a fight, such as smashing a plate or treasured heirloom, can also qualify.
Even relatively impersonal acts, like inscribing your name in wet cement or spray painting a landscape scene on an alley wall, count as vandalism activities according to Penal Code 594 PC.
The outcomes of vandalism charges often revolve around whether the property was personally owned, particularly in cases like one of the above described: when someone breaks something inside their own home out of anger during a fight.
Penal Code 594 indicates that vandalism laws do apply to any jointly owned property. In this instance, a husband who breaks the property of his wife may be charged with vandalism even if he also technically owns whatever property he allegedly vandalized. Break the crystal punch bowl your aunt gave you both at your wedding, and you can end up behind bars.
Note that any alleged vandalism occurring on public property is presumed to occur on property not owned by the defendant. In these cases, it is assumed that the defendant did not have the consent of the public to deface, destroy, or damage the property.
Lesser and Other Offenses
A vandalism charge will qualify as a misdemeanor instead of a felony if the damage to the allegedly vandalized property is calculated to be less than $400.
However, if multiple alleged acts of vandalism have occurred, a jury may calculate that the acts' total monetary value, added together, total more than $400. In these cases, a prosecutor may charge the defendant with felony vandalism instead, even if every individual alleged act caused less than $400 worth of damage.
However, remember that felony vandalism charges are not the same thing as convictions. A strong California vandalism defense can go a long way toward securing a lower sentence.
There are many common offenses that are often charged in conjunction with California vandalism. Examples include:
- Trespassing, described by Penal Code 602 PC as entering the property of another person without their consent or the right to do so
- Burglary, defined by Penal Code 459 PC as entering the property of another person with the intention to commit petty theft or felony inside
- Arson, defined by Penal Code 451 PC as maliciously setting fire to the property of another person or, occasionally, your own property
Motor Vehicle Vandalism
Motor vehicle vandalism will often be charged under different laws – most notably Vehicle Code 10853 VC. These laws ensure that all the destruction, damage, or defacement of a vehicle without the owner's consent qualifies as a misdemeanor.
In California law, graffiti is described as any inscriptions, marks, figures, words, or any other designs that are unauthorized by the property owner which are etched, drawn, painted, or otherwise placed on personal property.
Notably, Penal Code 594 indicates that even impermanent graffiti can still “deface” property because legal defacement does not need to be permanent. Graffiti laws apply to any real or personal property – real property includes land and common attachments like homes or other buildings while personal property covers any other type of property, including cars or the furniture inside a home or building.
The punishments for vandalism charges can vary dramatically based on the estimated dollar value for the property damage, along with extenuating circumstances and other lesser charges. Whether a vandalism charge is filed as a felony or misdemeanor will also have an effect on potential punishments.
Misdemeanor vandalism charges that incur property damage calculated at less than $400 will often include punishments of up to 1 year in county jail, as well as a maximum fine of up to $1000. However, those with prior vandalism convictions may be subject to fines of up to $5000. Informal or summary probation is often included as well.
Such conditions for probation could include California driver's license suspension, community service, counseling, and possibly other sentences depending on the judge/jury.
Felony vandalism punishments often include jail sentences between 1 and 3 years. Additional fines of up to $10,000 or up to $50,000 if total vandalism damages were calculated to be worth $10,000 or more. Additional probation sentences like the ones mentioned above may also be included.
Those previously convicted of vandalism charges on at least two occasions are required to serve a jail or prison sentence for the current charges.
Charges are not the same thing as proof, even if accusation often feels like conviction. There are multiple ways you can defend yourself against vandalism charges, especially since these charges are often levied without sufficient evidence.
Accidents happen. Because vandalism charges require the prosecution to prove that there was malicious intent involved with the destruction or damage of property, describing the damage as an accident can be an effective legal defense. Accidental damage is also relatively simple to prove – if the damage was unintentional, it cannot be malicious and, therefore, cannot qualify as vandalism.
California vandalism charges are sometimes levied against innocent individuals, particularly in cases of domestic violence. In a case where a spouse or significant other damages their property, then blames the vandalism on their partner, the defendant's attorney can present a wrongful arrest or false accusation defense.
Furthermore, even in “traditional” vandalism cases involving teenagers, one or another of the group may be singled out to “fall” for the rest of the group if they are caught. A false accusation defense can be effective, particularly in group contexts.
If the vandalism accusation came about as a result of an eyewitness account or video footage, you may present a mistaken identity defense. Maybe you look like the person who vandalized property or were with them at the time of the alleged vandalizing act. Furthermore, instances of heightened emotions and prejudice can lead to cases of mistaken identity.
As an example, a property owner who believes his neighbor has a bone to pick may accuse that neighbor of vandalism when his car is keyed. A strong vandalism defense attorney can help you avoid a conviction with a defense like this.
Why Do I Need an Attorney?
A California vandalism attorney can give you the best chance to avoid a conviction for any vandalism charge, whether it is a misdemeanor or felony charge. In the case of the latter charge, good vandalism lawyers can alternatively convince the prosecution to drop the charge to a misdemeanor or lower your sentence. If you've been charged with vandalism in California, you should contact the Law Office of Peter James Chambers right now for a free case evaluation.