Vandalism is the deliberate infliction of damage or defacement upon public or private property, disregarding the rightful owner's consent. Its manifestations span a wide array of actions, including but not limited to graffiti, structural destruction, littering, and any endeavors leading to ruining or deteriorating another individual's possessions. The act of vandalism carries the weight of criminality due to its encroachment upon the rights of others and the subsequent disruption of societal harmony. It is noteworthy that while the initial actions that give rise to vandalism may seem trivial, the ramifications upon conviction hold substantial significance.

Contact the California Criminal Lawyer Group in Long Beach for assistance.

Vandalism Under California Law

Vandalism is addressed under Penal Code 594. The statute defines vandalism as the deliberate and malicious act of altering, impairing, or annihilating property owned by another individual. This encompasses a wide range of actions, including but not limited to:

  • Graffiti.
  • The intentional keying of another person’s vehicle.
  • Shattering of windows, or
  • Any purposeful deed that inflicts harm upon someone's possessions without their explicit agreement.

The legal definition of the crime presents the elements prosecutors must prove for a jury to find you guilty of the offense. Prosecutors must prove that:

  • You acted intentionally and willingly in vandalism — The state must demonstrate that you had a specific purpose or knowledge that your actions would damage or destroy the property.
  • You acted with malice — Prosecutors must establish malice. It indicates that you acted with ill will, spite, or a wrongful motive in committing the vandalism. This element is often required for more severe charges or escalated penalties.
  • The property belonged to another, or it was lawfully in someone else's possession — Ownership should be substantiated through ownership documents, lease agreements, or other evidence that confirms the rightful ownership or control of the property.
  • You caused harm by inflicting damage, defacement, or destruction upon the property. This includes physical alterations, markings, or impairments that diminish the value or aesthetic appeal of the property.

The severity of the charge depends significantly on the extent of the harm inflicted on the property. Prosecutors bear the burden of proving that the damage caused falls within specific thresholds set for either a misdemeanor or felony violation.

  1. In cases warranting misdemeanor prosecution, the value of the defacement, damage, or destruction must amount to less than $400.
  2. For charges to be elevated to felony prosecution, the defacement, damage, or destruction value must meet or exceed the $400 threshold.

Additionally, prosecutors must establish a direct causal connection between your actions and the resulting harm. This approach entails demonstrating that your deliberate conduct directly caused damage or destruction to the property.

Let us address each element for an in-depth understanding of the crime.

Vandalized With Graffiti or Other Markings

Defaced with graffiti or other inscribed material encompasses a wide range of unauthorized inscriptions, words, marks, figures, or designs written, etched, marked, drawn, scratched, or painted on real or personal property without the owner's consent. This includes any form of unauthorized writing or drawing, regardless of the tool or medium used.

"Real" property refers to land and any permanent structures attached to it, for example, buildings or homes. In contrast, "personal" property refers to movable possessions, including vehicles, furniture, and other belongings.

Notably, the defacement with graffiti or other inscribed material does not necessarily need to be permanent. Even temporary markings or inscriptions that alter the appearance or integrity of the property can still be considered acts of vandalism under relevant laws and regulations.

Property You Were Not the Sole Owner of, Either Legally or Jointly

When you jointly own property with another person, like your spouse, you could face vandalism charges. However, the prosecution must establish that you defaced, damaged, or destroyed the property without the co-owner’s consent. The crucial determining factor is whether the co-owner authorized your actions or if they exceeded the boundaries of your ownership rights.

Joint ownership does not grant unrestricted permission to engage in activities that harm the property or encroach upon the co-owner’s rights. If your actions were unauthorized and resulted in the defacement, damage, or destruction of the jointly owned property, you could face vandalism charges.

Furthermore, in situations where the alleged vandalism occurs on public property, for example, a park bench, the jury retains the prerogative to presume that you neither owned the property nor had permission to deface, damage, or destroy it. This presumption can work against you when attempting to establish your innocence.

Acting With Malicious Intent

The mindset or motive behind the act of vandalism is crucial. It determines whether malicious intent is present.

Acting with malice in vandalism involves intentionally, willfully, or wrongfully engaging in actions that deface, damage, or destroy property. It encompasses harboring ill will, spite, or a deliberate disregard for the property rights of others. Establishing malice in a vandalism case can result in more severe charges or increased penalties. It demonstrates a deliberate commitment to vandalize, showcasing a conscious disregard for the property owner's rights and a wrongful intention to cause harm.

However, you would not be found guilty of vandalism if you accidentally defaced, damaged, or destroyed someone else's property without malicious intent. Unintentional or accidental damage does not meet the requirement of acting with malice.

Note: Intent to commit vandalism does not automatically imply an intention to break the law.

The Value of Damage

A "count of vandalism" pertains to a distinct offense or charge of vandalism. It signifies that each defacement, damage, or destruction to property can be treated as a separate count, depending on the specific circumstances and evidence presented in a case.

Here is an example: If an individual commits multiple acts of vandalism on different occasions or targets different properties, each action can be charged as a separate count. This enables the prosecution to present evidence and pursue charges for each act of vandalism perpetrated by the defendant.

The determination of the number of counts of vandalism in a case depends on the identification and proof of distinct incidents or acts of vandalism by the prosecution.

In certain instances, the prosecution consolidates multiple acts of vandalism into a single count or charge. He/she will do so based on the concept that these acts share the "same intention, impulse, and plan." When the prosecution can establish that these acts of vandalism were committed with a unified intent, they will combine them into one count rather than pursue separate charges for each act.

If the cumulative value of the damage resulting from the combined acts of vandalism exceeds $400, the prosecutor would prefer felony charges. This entails more severe consequences and potentially harsher penalties if the defendant is convicted. You could face misdemeanor charges if the value is less than $400.

Vandalism of a Vehicle

Vandalizing a car is addressed under Vehicle Code 10853 and not Penal Code 594.

Tampering with or damaging a vehicle is strictly prohibited under Vehicle Code 10853. This law targets individuals who intentionally and maliciously engage in acts that interfere with a vehicle's proper functioning or condition.

Examples include intentionally breaking, removing, or tampering with any vehicle component without the owner's authorization.

The violation of Vehicle Code 10853 is classified as a misdemeanor offense. If found guilty, you would face misdemeanor charges and the corresponding penalties as determined by the court.

Defenses You Can Raise in a Vandalism Case

There are several defenses available that can be used to challenge the prosecution’s case. Some of the common defense arguments include:

  1. The Accident Defense

Claiming that your actions were an accident can be a viable defense strategy in a vandalism case. Your attorney will argue that the damage caused was unintentional. However, this defense's success hinges on the case's specific circumstances and the available evidence.

To establish an accident defense, you will typically be required to demonstrate the following elements:

  • Lack of intent — Provide evidence showing that you did not have the intention or deliberate desire to cause harm to the property. Accidents are generally characterized by a lack of intent to commit a wrongful act.
  • Absence of negligence — Establish that you exercised reasonable care and caution in your actions, taking all necessary precautions to prevent damage. It is essential to demonstrate that the damage occurred unexpectedly despite your reasonable efforts.
  • Causation — Prove that the damage resulted directly from an unforeseeable event or circumstance beyond your control that you could not reasonably anticipate or prevent.
  • Prompt reporting — Demonstrate that you promptly reported the incident to the property owner, authorities, or relevant parties as soon as you became aware of the damage. This indicates your willingness to take responsibility for the accident and can strengthen your accident defense.
  1. You are a Victim of Mistaken Identity

The defense strategy of mistaken identity is a viable option in a vandalism case. Its purpose is to contest the prosecution's assertion that you were the individual responsible for the vandalism, arguing that you were mistakenly identified as the culprit. However, this defense's effectiveness hinges on the case's specific circumstances and the evidence available for examination.

To establish a mistaken identity defense, it is typically necessary to demonstrate the following:

  • Inconsistent descriptions — Emphasize any inconsistencies or contradictions in the descriptions of the perpetrator provided by witnesses or the victim. These discrepancies can cast doubt on the accuracy of the identification and raise the possibility of mistaken identity.
  • Alibi — Present evidence or witnesses to substantiate your claim that you were not present at the location where the vandalism occurred. This evidence can comprise documents, surveillance footage, or testimonies from reliable individuals who can verify your whereabouts during the incident.
  • Insufficient evidence — Challenge the prosecution to furnish substantial evidence linking you to the act of vandalism. The lack of physical evidence, for example, fingerprints or DNA, can weaken their case and bolster the mistaken identity defense.
  • Alternative suspects — Ensure you present alternative individuals who had the motive and opportunity to commit vandalism. This line of argumentation reinforces the assertion that you were unjustly identified as the offender.
  1. You Were Falsely Accused

In a vandalism case, the defense strategy of false allegations or wrongful arrest can be highly effective. This approach challenges the credibility and accuracy of the accusations against you, asserting that you have been wrongly accused or arrested. However, the success of this defense hinges on the specific circumstances of your case and the evidence that can be presented.

To employ the defense of false allegations or wrongful arrest, you must typically establish the following key elements:

  • Insufficient evidence — You can undermine the prosecution's case by demanding substantial evidence linking you to vandalism. If there is a lack of credible evidence supporting their claims, it weakens their position and strengthens your defense based on false allegations or wrongful arrests.
  • Motive or bias — Investigating potential reasons or prejudices that could have influenced someone to accuse you or led to your wrongful arrest is essential. This could involve uncovering personal conflicts, ulterior motives, or instances of improper police conduct that cast doubt on the authenticity of the allegations.
  • Inconsistencies or contradictions — By scrutinizing the statements and testimonies of those who accused you, you can identify any inconsistencies or contradictions. Shedding light on these discrepancies can raise doubts about the accuracy of their claims and bolster your defense against false allegations or wrongful arrests.
  • Evidence of your innocence — Presenting compelling evidence and witnesses that support your innocence is crucial. This could include alibi evidence proving you were elsewhere during the vandalism, surveillance footage corroborating your whereabouts, or testimonies from credible individuals offering an alternative explanation.
  1. You are the Legal Owner of the Property

You can also show ownership as a way to challenge the vandalism charges. However, you must establish the following elements as true:

  • Proof of ownership — Present evidence like property deeds, titles, or other documentation to demonstrate that you were the rightful owner or had legal rights to the property. This evidence should establish the connection between you and the allegedly vandalized property.
  • Lack of intent to damage property — Show that you did not have the intention or willful desire to cause harm or damage to your property. You can provide evidence or arguments to support the claim that any damage caused was unintentional or accidental.
  • Permissible actions — Establish that your actions were within your rights as the property owner. This can involve demonstrating that your actions were part of maintenance, renovation, or other legitimate activities associated with property ownership.

This defense is ineffective if your actions exceed reasonable and acceptable conduct as a property owner. It is also not applicable if you intentionally damaged your property for fraud.

Penalties if Convicted Under Penal Code 594

Vandalism carries diverse penalties, punishments, and sentencing, contingent upon the circumstances and extent of damage incurred.

  1. Misdemeanor Vandalism Per PC 594

If the damage value remains below $400, the violation is a misdemeanor offense. The applicable penalties upon conviction are:

  • A maximum of one year in county jail.
  • A fine of up to $1,000, which, in case of prior vandalism convictions, can increase to $5,000.
  • Informal probation — The probation terms could include:
  1. Temporary suspension of your driver's license.
  2. Community service obligations,
  3. Mandatory counseling, or
  4. Assuming responsibility for maintaining a graffiti-free environment by repairing, replacing, or cleaning the affected property for no more than one year.
  1. Felony Vandalism Per PC 594

Once the damage inflicted upon the vandalized property exceeds $400, the vandalism offense assumes a "wobbler" classification. Consequently, prosecutors can file charges for a misdemeanor or felony offense. The charges' determination depends on the case's facts and your criminal history.

Should the jury convict you of a misdemeanor violation, potential penalties include:

  • Misdemeanor probation instead of jail time.
  • A maximum of one year in jail.
  • Up to $10,000 in fines, which could increase to $50,000 if the damage value exceeds $10,000.

Should the jury convict you of a felony violation, potential penalties include the following:

  • Formal probation for no more than one year and a sentence of up to one year in jail, or
  • Imprisonment in jail for 16 months, 2, or 3 years.
  • Up to $10,000 in fines, which could increase to $50,000 if the damage value exceeds $10,000.

Note: The probation terms are similar to those outlined above. Additionally, if you have previous convictions for vandalism on two or more occasions, with imprisonment or probation granted in at least one of those instances, you must serve a jail or prison sentence in the current case.

  1. Penalties For Graffiti Causing Damage Below $250

PC 640.5 and 640.6 outline the penalties you could face if convicted of using graffiti in your case.

You will face the penalties outlined under PC 640.5 and 640.6 if the vandalism charge relates to the defacement of property through graffiti or inscribed material. However, the value of the damage must be below $250.

However, prosecutors can pursue a conviction for a misdemeanor offense under PC 594 or PC 640.5 and 640.6, even if the value of the damage is $250 or below. The consequences hinge on the number of prior convictions:

First Conviction

The offense constitutes an infraction. You will face the following:

  • A fine of up to $1,000 and
  • Potential community service requirements.

Second Conviction

The offense graduates to a misdemeanor, resulting in the following penalties:

  • A maximum of six months of jail time,
  • A fine of not more than $2,000, and
  • Community service obligations.

Third and Subsequent Convictions

A third or subsequent conviction is a misdemeanor violation. However, you will face significant penalties if convicted, namely:

  • A jail sentence of no more than one year.
  • A maximum of $3,000 in fines, and
  • Mandatory community service.
  1. Penalties for Other Types of Vandalism

California possesses distinct vandalism statutes prescribing penalties based on the nature of the offense or the targeted property. Here are a few examples:

Vandalizing a Place of Worship

Vandalism of places of worship is addressed under PC 594.3.

Regardless of repair costs, vandalism against a temple, church, or any other area designated for worship qualifies as a wobbler offense.

The penalties for vandalizing a place of worship vary based on the severity of the conviction:

If convicted of a misdemeanor for vandalizing a place of worship, you could face:

  • A maximum of one year in jail.
  • A maximum of $1,000 in fines.
  • Summary probation with similar conditions as outlined above.

In the case of a felony conviction for vandalizing a place of worship, you could face the following penalties:

  • Imprisonment for 16 months, 2, or 3 years.
  • Up to $10,000 in fines.
  • Formal probation.

Vandalism Involving Caustic Chemicals

It is a crime under PC 594.4 to use caustic or noxious substances like butyric acid to vandalize another person’s property. A violation of PC 594.4 is a wobbler offense.

If vandalism involving chemicals is treated as a misdemeanor, individuals could potentially be subject to a jail term of up to six months in county jail.

On the other hand, if vandalism involving chemicals is a felony, the repercussions become more severe, carrying a sentence of sixteen months to three years.

Irrespective of whether the violation is a misdemeanor or felony offense, perpetrators can be subjected to:

  • A fine of $1,000 to $50,000, contingent upon the extent of the damage to the property.

Vandalizing on or Near Freeways or Highways

You will face penalties under PC 640.7 and 640.8 if you engage in vandalism on or close to highways or freeways. The violation is a misdemeanor offense. A conviction results in the following penalties:

  • A first conviction for vandalism near a highway would result in jail time for up to six months. However, for a second conviction or the initial conviction involving vandalism near a freeway, the maximum period of incarceration extends to one year.
  • The fine for vandalism on or near a highway is a maximum of $1,000. In contrast, vandalism on or near a freeway could result in substantial penalties, including a maximum fine of $5,000.
  • Mandatory community service and counseling.

Contact a Pasadena Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

Vandalism charges, if convicted, can result in significant penalties. You can avoid them or serve reduced sentences if you hire the right attorney for your defense. At California Criminal Lawyer Group, our experience handling criminal cases, including vandalism, makes us the best fit to fight to protect your rights. Contact our Long Beach offices at 562-966-8120 to schedule a free, no-obligation case evaluation.