California Penal Code 594 defines vandalism as deliberately harming another party’s property. When you hear the term, the image that comes to mind is of bored or misguided young individuals defacing property with graffiti or destroying it. Nevertheless, even adults face the charges, as the violation comprises many activities, some of which did not cross your mind.

A conviction for vandalism attracts trivial or severe penalties based on the circumstances. Therefore, you should enlist a skilled defense lawyer for legal guidance and court representation. At the California Criminal Lawyer Group in Anaheim, we have highlighted the various aspects of this property crime to help you understand the legal process and protect your rights.

Vandalism Legal Definition

Per PC 594, vandalism involves maliciously defacing property using graffiti or inscribed material, damaging or destroying property belonging to an individual or the government. The definition of the offense revolves around three significant aspects that the prosecutor must demonstrate to the jury to secure a conviction.

Vandalism Elements or Aspects

The prosecutor can only secure a conviction in these cases if they prove all aspects of the case. The elements are:

You Maliciously Harmed Property with Engraved Material or Graffiti

When you act maliciously, you are engaging in a wrongful act intentionally or acting with illegal intent to annoy or cause harm to another party. You will not face vandalism charges if the inscription or graffiti is not malicious.

For example, you are visiting a department store to shop. You park your car and walk inside for the shopping. On returning, you find someone parking their vehicle next to yours, leaving little space between them. As you open your car’s door, you accidentally scratch the vehicle parked next to it. Under the circumstances, the damage to the car was accidental and not malicious. Even if the owner of the damaged vehicle reports a vandalism incident, the court will find you innocent because you lack malice.

For purposes of PEN 594, graffiti or inscribed material is any unsanctioned writing, figure, inscription, word, design, or mark written, painted, scratched, or marked on government or private property. Graffiti is any illegal drawing or inscription on another party’s real or personal property with any tool.

Real property refers to land and all its attachments, like a structure, a house, or anything else. Personal or private property is the items inside your home or building, like furniture and vehicles.

The law does not put conditions on the type of graffiti. Whether it is permanent or temporary, it is the same in the eyes of the law. Also, the tool used for vandalism is not essential. For example, you are angry with your intimate partner after a breakup. You use a marker pen to inscribe your feelings on their car to seek revenge. The marker pen’s ink is not permanent, but you will still face vandalism charges. It is evidence that you maliciously defaced their vehicle by writing on it.

Aside from graffiti, other acts that amount to vandalism are:

  1. Paint spraying on a community bridge or freeway.
  2. Keying someone else’s vehicle.
  3. Slashing the wheels of your former partner’s car.
  4. Inscribing your name or initials on a public sidewalk, bench, or train.
  5. Breaking another person’s windows using stones.

The Property in Question Did Not Belong to You, or You Co-own it

It seems evident that vandalism is linked to property owned by another party. However, there are additional considerations that warrant discussion.

First, when you destroy, deface, or harm government property like a sidewalk, traffic sign, or tree in a public park, the court will automatically presume the vandalized item belonged to another party. Additionally, it will conclude that you lacked authorization to deface or damage the property.

Similarly, PEN 594 applies to jointly owned property. For example, if you break up with your wife and she decides to damage or destroy the home you have built together, she will face vandalism charges despite owning part of the property. 

The Value of the Destruction

The prosecutor must demonstrate that your actions as the defendant caused financial losses in replacing or fixing the damage. You will face misdemeanor vandalism when the value of the property destroyed is, at most, $400. When the destruction is valued at at least $400, the violation is a wobbler, and the prosecutor could charge you with a felony or misdemeanor. The magnitude of the defacement will determine the penalties you will face.

Vandalism is like theft crimes, where the type of charge and the penalties you face are based on the worth of the stolen items. The repair or replacement cost and your background determine the kind of charge the prosecutor will prefer against you. Furthermore, when accused of multiple vandalism cases committed in a single or similar manner, the incidents will be combined, and the prosecutor will sum up the cost of repairs or replacement of the property. If the damage exceeds $400, you will face felony charges. Nevertheless, the prosecutor prefers misdemeanor charges when the loss is below $400.

You will face multiple vandalism charges if you vandalize property in two separate events that lack the same plan or intent. It would help to know that being charged with a felony does not make your case hopeless. With the help of an attorney, you can contest the charges or have the count reduced by challenging the price of repairs for the vandalism.

The prosecutor holds the burden of proof and should demonstrate to the jury that the property destruction was $400 or above to convict you of a felony. You will face misdemeanor penalties upon conviction if the repairs or damages are below $400.

Vandalism Penalties

California PC 594 has a complex scheme for issuing vandalism penalties. The penalties vary based on the unique circumstances of your case and are as follows:

  • Penalties of Misdemeanor Vandalism

When the losses caused to the property owner after vandalism are at most $400, you face misdemeanor charges. If the court finds you guilty, your punishment will be as follows:

  1. At most twelve months of jail incarceration.
  2. At most, $1,000 in financial court fines or $5,000 if you possess a prior PEN 594 conviction.
  3. Summary or informal probation.

If the judge imposes probation in place of jail incarceration, the requirements you should abide by in the probationary period are:

  1. The judge can give you the responsibility of keeping a property in your locality graffiti-free for no more than twelve months.
  2. Mandatory treatment.
  3. Community labor, including cleaning, maintaining, or changing the vandalized property in person.
  4. If you have a driver’s license, the court can suspend it for no more than twenty-four months or delay your eligibility for driving privileges by twelve to thirty-six months if you do not have one.
  • Penalties for Felony Vandalism

Your offense is a wobbler when you cause property damage whose repairs or replacements cost $400 or more. It means the prosecutor will analyze your case, including your criminal background and the case’s facts, to establish whether to file a misdemeanor or felony charge.

A misdemeanor conviction where the damages in question are at least $400 attracts stricter penalties than a typical misdemeanor. The penalties are:

  1. No more than twelve months of incarceration.
  2. A monetary court fine of at most $10,000 or $50,000 in court fines if the destructions are worth more than $10,000.
  3. Formal probation, whose conditions are the same as those of misdemeanor probation.

Felony vandalism attracts the following penalties when convicted:

  1. 16, 24, or 36 months of jail incarceration.
  2. Formal probation with a mandatory twelve-month jail sentence.
  3. A monetary court-imposed fine of no more than $10,000 or $50,000 if the defacement is above $10,000.
  4. Felony probation.

It would help to know that if you have over two prior vandalism convictions and have served jail time or secured probation, you will automatically face a jail or prison term for the current or subsequent offense.

  • Punishments When Graffiti Results in Damages Worth at Most $250

When you deface someone’s property using graffiti or an inscription, you risk a lesser charge with lenient penalties if the destruction is $250 or less. The sentencing is provided for under PC 640.5 and PEN 640.6. The decision to charge you under this statute solely rests with the prosecutor because they can opt to bring the formal counts for the same crime under misdemeanor PEN 594.

If the DA pursues PC 640.5 and 640.6 (California Graffiti Statutes) violation charges, the kind of punishment you will face hinges on your criminal background. You violate graffiti laws in the state if the graffiti or inscription on someone’s property requires at most $250 in repairs.

The prosecutor will charge you with an infraction if it is your first graffiti vandalism offense. The benefit of an infraction charge is that you will not serve any jail time. Instead, the court sentences you to community labor and a court fine of at most $1,000.

If you are a second-time offender and the repairs are no more than $250, the prosecutor will prefer misdemeanor charges against you. Nevertheless, misdemeanor punishments under PEN 594 are more stringent than those provided under California graffiti statutes despite all being misdemeanor offenses. Under the graffiti statutes, the consequences for a misdemeanor conviction are:

  1. At most, half a year of jail incarceration.
  2. Monetary court fines not exceeding $2,000.
  3. Participating in community labor.

When you have two prior convictions for graffiti law violations and served a jail term on one of these occasions, a third guilty verdict will attract misdemeanor penalties, including financial court fines of at most $3,000, jail incarceration of no more than twelve months, and community labor in place of or alongside fines and jail incarceration.

Punishments for Other Vandalism Types

PEN 594 is not the only vandalism statute in California. Several other regulations prescribing vandalism penalties are available. These statutes set penalties depending on the type of vandalism or the vandalized property instead of repair costs. The statutes are:

PC 594.3 Vandalizing Religious Places

California PC 594.3 makes it a crime to vandalize a worship place like a church, temple, mosque, synagogue, or an area used for religious activity or education. The prosecutor applies the offense as a wobbler, irrespective of the repair costs.

If the DA charges the offense as a misdemeanor and the court finds you guilty, you risk the following consequences:

  • Jail incarceration for at most twelve months.
  • A court-imposed fine not exceeding $1,000.
  • Informal probation accompanied by the same conditions as those of a misdemeanor PEN 594 violation.

When the preferred charge is a felony, a conviction is punishable by:

  • 16, 24, or 36 months of jail imprisonment.
  • At most $10,000 in court fines.
  • Formal probation with the same conditions as the ones provided for felony PEN 594.

You should know that if the district attorney finds out your vandalism at a religious place was a hate crime intended to terrorize the victims for their religious beliefs, you face direct felony charges.

Under PC 594.35, vandalizing a cemetery or morgue attracts harsher penalties than those provided for typical vandalism in PC 594.

Caustic Chemical Vandalism

PEN 594.4 criminalizes the use of caustic substances like butyric acid or other harmful acids to commit vandalism. The prosecutor files the offense as a wobbler, notwithstanding the repair or replacement cost.

A misdemeanor PEN 594.4 violation attracts no more than half a year in jail, while a felony attracts 16, 24, or 36 months.

Additionally, a felony or misdemeanor conviction attracts monetary court fines of $1,000 to $50,000, depending on the cost of repairing or replacing the vandalized item. Alternatively, the court could impose probation in place of jail incarceration.

Freeway Vandalism

Per PC 640.87 and PC 640.8, it is a crime to vandalize property along highways or freeways. When you face these allegations, the prosecutor files misdemeanor charges. The court will sentence you to no more than six months in jail for a first vandalism conviction on a highway. You will face at most twelve months in prison for a second or subsequent conviction or your first sentence for vandalizing a freeway.

Additionally, the court can impose a fine of $1,000 for vandalizing a highway and $5,000 for damaging a freeway. Besides, the judge can impose community hours and mandatory counseling.

Expunging a Vandalism Sentence

If the court sentenced you to probation for a misdemeanor or felony charge, you qualify to petition the court for a conviction expungement. However, you must complete probation without violating or breaching the imposed conditions to be eligible. The court will oppose the record expunction if you face probation violation charges.

When convicted of a felony, you must request the court reduce the sentence to a misdemeanor before applying for expunction. You will need the help of a lawyer to do this. The legal representative will submit a PEN 17(b) petition if you were charged with a wobbler. If the offense was filed automatically as a felony, the judge will deny the petition. The lawyer can file the motion in the initial court proceeding, during sentencing, or after you have completed felony or formal probation.

Also, when you obey the probation conditions for the first twelve or twenty-four months, the court can issue an early termination of the probationary period. That way, you can file for an expunction.

If the court grants your petition, your criminal records will be sealed from the public. The first advantage of an expunction is that even if someone runs a background check on your criminal record, your conviction for vandalism will not pop up. Therefore, you will readily secure employment, loans, and housing.

Additionally, an expunction of the conviction means reinstatement of your Second Amendment rights. An expunged record also means you can become a jury member or apply for a professional license without interference from your previous convictions.

Viable Vandalism Defenses

Vandalism charges attract severe penalties when the court finds you guilty. Luckily, an allegation or formal charge does not translate to a conviction. The prosecutor should prove all the case’s elements to convince the jury beyond a moral certainty that you committed the property crime. You must hire an experienced defense lawyer to poke holes in the prosecutor’s evidence and cast reasonable doubt in the jury's minds about the evidence against you for a favorable outcome.

At the California Criminal Lawyer Group in Anaheim, we will review your allegations and craft viable defenses, including:

  • The Vandalism Was Accidental

If you did not maliciously destroy or deface another party’s property, or if your actions were accidental, you did not violate PEN 594. Accidents are still accidents, even when they result in losses. Therefore, you can assert that your conduct in harming someone’s property was accidental.

  • False Accusations

Another defense your lawyer can use is challenging the DA’s arguments that your arrest was wrong or the charges against you are false. Vandalism often happens in relation to domestic violence, which explains the many false claims.

Someone can falsely accuse you of the property crime of vandalism out of jealousy or to seek revenge. A person can damage their property, deliberately or by accident, and then blame it on you, especially if you are their ex or current spouse.

If the allegations against you are false, your lawyer will work hard to refute them by providing evidence of the actual events.

  • You Own the Property in Question

You are guilty of a PEN 594 violation if you maliciously damage another party’s property. The definition includes public and jointly owned property. Therefore, if the property you are accused of defacing belongs to you only, you can use the element as a defense to prevent a conviction.

  • Mistaken Identity

It is possible to face vandalism charges when a witness wrongfully identifies you during an investigation. If you meet the description of the person identified by the witness, the police will arrest you, and the prosecutor will bring formal charges based on the information. Also, you could have been in contact with the individuals who engaged in vandalism even when you were not involved in the crime. Other times, an individual can mistakenly believe you were involved in vandalizing their property when you were not.

In these circumstances, your lawyer will find evidence to support the mistaken identity argument and contend that another person, not you, committed the crime.

Crimes Charged in Link With Vandalism

The prosecutor can charge you with vandalism or one of the other related offenses. The crimes that can be charged with or in lieu of a PC 594 violation are:

California Trespass

Per PEN 602, entering another party’s property without their permission is unlawful and amounts to trespassing. Typically, your actions constitute trespassing when you vandalize a person’s property without their approval. So, if you go into someone’s property without consent and trash it, you will face two separate offenses: vandalism and trespassing.

Conduct that amounts to trespassing includes:

  • Gaining access to another party’s property to cause damages or harm.
  • Entering and extending your stay in a person’s property.
  • Failure to leave a person’s property after they have requested you to.
  • Carrying stones or soil from another party’s property without consent.
  • Refusal to be screened in a courthouse or airport.

Trespassing is typically a misdemeanor, although the prosecutor can apply infraction or felony charges.

California Burglary

Per California Penal Code 459, it is unlawful to gain access to a person’s property to commit theft while inside. If the district attorney (DA) believes that when you entered the property, you planned on committing felony vandalism, they will charge you with burglary and vandalism.

Burglary is severely punished, with at most 72 months of prison incarceration if the building you entered was inhabited. If the house was uninhabited, the offense is a wobbler.

California Arson

PEN 451 criminalizes setting another party’s property on fire and, in unique circumstances, your property.

When you face arson charges, the prosecutor could add another count for maliciously destroying the same property under PEN 594.

The punishments you face for arson are based on the kind of property in question, whether the fire was reckless or intentional, and whether an individual sustained injuries.

Other offenses related to vandalism are:

  • Criminal gang enhancement.
  • Domestic violence.
  • Damaging electrical or telephone line.

Find a Skilled Property Anaheim Crimes Lawyer Near Me

Vandalism cases are complex, and following one through without the guidance of a lawyer can be problematic. The penalties at stake are also severe, not to mention the collateral effects of a conviction. At the California Criminal Lawyer Group in Anaheim, we understand that a sentence can alter your life, so we are here to defend you for a favorable outcome. Call us today at 714-766-0965 for a no-obligation consultation.