California laws include stringent laws against property crimes to protect property owners against all kinds of losses. When a person destroys another’s property, the victim can experience both tangible and intangible losses, including reduction or loss of property value and psychological pain that could reduce the quality of life. Vandalism is among the severe property crimes you can be convicted for in California. Penalties include a prison time for a maximum of three years and a hefty penalty of up to $10,000. Additionally, you experience other consequences that could affect various aspects of your life, like social life and employment.

If you face vandalism charges, it is advisable to seek an experienced criminal lawyer’s help and counsel. Contact the Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer and let us help you compel the court to reduce or drop your charges.

Legal Definition of Vandalism

The law against vandalism in California is on Section 594 of the state’s Penal Laws. The definition of vandalism under this law is maliciously destroying or damaging another person’s property. Generally, the offense is a misdemeanor if the value of the property destroyed is low but a felony if the value is high.

Contrary to what many people think, vandalism goes beyond children’s innocent acts, such as scratching vehicles or smashing their neighbor’s mailboxes. Many other activities could be categorized under vandalism, including those committed by adults of sound mind. Examples include writing anything on wet cement on a building or sidewalk or breaking your boyfriend’s chinaware after a disagreement.

Vandalism is a severe offense in California that could attract significant penalties, including a lengthy prison term and hefty fines. Thus, the law is cautious not to charge an innocent person with vandalism. There are facts of the offense that the prosecutor must prove in court for you to be found guilty of the crime:

  • That you illegally and maliciously destroyed or damaged another person’s property by defacing it using graffiti or any other inscribed material
  • That you didn’t own the said property, nor did you own it with another person.
  • That the value of damage, destruction, or defacement was of a particular dollar value — If the damage exceeds $400, the court could treat the offense as a felony. But if the damage was less than $400, the court might convict you of a misdemeanor offense.

Let us look at each of these facts keenly to understand the offense even better:

Defacing a Property With Graffiti/Inscribed Material

Graffiti/inscribed material, as used in this context, refers to all illegal or unauthorized inscriptions, figures, words, designs, or marks that are written, scratched, etched, painted, or drawn on personal or real property. It incorporates any unauthorized drawing or writing on a property, made using practically any type of tool.

Real property refers to land or any other asset connected to it, such as a home or building. Personal property, including everything else that could be owned by another person, such as a car and furniture inside their house.

Note that the law does not require that the damage using graffiti or other inscribed material must be permanent for it to be considered vandalism.

Example: Tom and Bob disagree while at a house party hosted by one of their friends. They exchange bitter words, and then Tom storms out of the party angrily, heading home. Tom and Bob are next-door neighbors. Before entering his apartment, Tom takes out a marker from his backpack and writes insults on Bob’s door. 

Even if the writings can easily be cleaned off, Tom could face vandalism charges for writing on another person’s property.

Property You Don’t Own, or One Jointly Owned With Somebody Else

Vandalism involves damage to another person’s property. Even though this might appear apparent, there are instances when it could bring confusion, even to the prosecutor. The first requirement is that you must not own the property you allegedly damaged or destroyed. The other condition is that you must have owned the property alongside another person. It means that the property damaged could have connections with you (the defendant) but not wholly owned by you.

Property like that could be public property, such as a bench in the park. In that case, the prosecutor can convince the jury that you did not own or have a share of that property. Therefore, you could not have had permission to damage, destroy, or even deface it.

Additionally, a person who vandalizes a property he/she jointly owns with someone else can face the same charges. In that case, you could face charges for vandalism if you are a husband who destroyed, damaged, or defaced property you own alongside your wife.

Example: Nelly has separated from Fred, her husband of four years, on the grounds of infidelity. Nelly is not happy about it, mainly because Fred’s mistress immediately moved in with her husband after she walked out. Nelly and Fred own the home jointly, and Nelly hopes that the court will give her the property during their divorce settlement. However, Nelly cannot bear the fact that another woman is already living in it. In anger, she uses spray-paint to write horrible words on the gate and around the house.

Even if the home is partly hers, Nelly could be convicted of vandalism for destroying, damaging, or defacing a home she jointly co-owns with her ex-husband.

A Malicious Act

The next requirement for this offense is that you committed the act maliciously.  A malicious act could be:

  • A wrongful action that is intentional
  • Any act whose intention is to injure or annoy another person

Remember that the malicious act does not necessarily imply that you intended to violate the law.

Therefore, if you did not cause the damage, destroy, or deface the property maliciously, but the act was accidental, the court may not convict you for vandalism.

Felony or Misdemeanor Vandalism

The value of the damaged property will guide the prosecutor’s decision to charge you with felony or misdemeanor for vandalism. If the cost of repairing the damage, destruction, or defacement you have caused is not more than $400, the prosecutor will only bring charges for a misdemeanor. If, on the other hand, the costs are more than $400, the prosecutor will charge you with a felony or misdemeanor.

It is what makes California vandalism quite similar to the state’s theft crimes. Penalties an offender receives from the court are primarily dependent on the worth of the damage he/she has caused.

Again, if you face charges for more than one act of vandalism, and the prosecutor proves that all those offenses are connected in some way, maybe because you had the same plan, intention, or impulse, the court will put together all those crimes. The prosecutor will evaluate all the damages you have caused in all those instances. If the value goes beyond $400, you might be convicted of a felony for vandalism, however minor each crime might seem.

Example: Lucy and Natalie have been roommates for five months now, but their relationship is quite rocky. Natalie accuses Lucy of going through her stuff every time she is in college or at work. Lucy works from home, so she is in the apartment most of the time. But she constantly denies going through Natalie’s stuff. One evening, Natalie comes home after a few drinks with her friends. She decides to confront Lucy, which escalates into a fight. During the commotion, Natalie breaks Lucy’s watch and glasses. Lucy reports the incident to the police.

Natalie faces charges for vandalism and assault. For vandalism, the prosecutor considers the value of Lucy’s watch and glasses to determine how he will charge Natalie. If the two items’ value exceeds $400, she might be convicted of a felony offense. Note that Natalie will not be charged for two separate vandalism accounts, but one single account since the two instances are related.

Note: If the prosecutor brings felony vandalism charges against you, it does not necessarily mean that the court will convict you of the same. The essence of a trial is to give you a chance to fight the charges. The court will provide you with ample time to prepare for your defense for a fair hearing. If the court is convinced that the two items’ value does not add up to or isn’t more than $400 as alleged by the victim, you could be convicted for a misdemeanor, which attracts less severe penalties.

Vandalism involving a vehicle is not charged under Section 594 of California Penal Laws but Section 10853 of the state’s Vehicle Code. The latter makes it illegal for any person to deface, destroy, or damage a car without its owner’s consent.

Penalties for a Vandalism Conviction

California vandalism laws are apparent, but the legal processes involving punishment, penalties, and sentencing can be complicated. That is why it is advisable to work alongside an experienced criminal defense attorney to understand what could happen to you if you are found guilty of the offense.

Penalties for a Misdemeanor Conviction

As mentioned above, a misdemeanor charge will occur if the worth of the property destroyed or damaged is $400 or less. Thus, the following penalties could apply:

  • A maximum of one year in jail
  • A maximum of $1,000 in fines
  • A fine of up to $5,000 if there is a previous vandalism conviction in your criminal record.
  • Summary or informal probation

If the court sentences you to summary probation, you will be given a set of conditions you must adhere to during the probation period. Some of the probation conditions attached to your vandalism verdict are:

  • Suspension of your driver’s license for a maximum period of two years — If you do not have a license yet, the court will delay your quest to obtain one for between 1 to 3 years.
  • Mandatory counseling
  • Mandatory community service — Community service could include personally repairing, replacing, or cleaning up the damaged, destroyed, or defaced property.
  • You may be required to keep the property in question or a different one within the community free of graffiti for at least one year.

Penalties for a Felony Conviction

If the value of the damaged, destroyed, or defaced property is above $400, the offense becomes a wobbler. Thus, the prosecutor may charge you with a felony or misdemeanor. His/her decision is mainly based on:

  • Your criminal history
  • The facts of your case

If the value of the damaged property is over $400, and you are charged with a misdemeanor, the penalties you are likely to receive are similar to those listed above. However, if the prosecutor charges you with a felony, the punishments you are likely to receive will be stiffer than the misdemeanor penalties listed above. They might include:

  • Felony probation, with a maximum of one year in jail
  • A jail term of 16 months, two or three years
  • A fine of not more than $10,000
  • A maximum fine of $50,000 if the value of the destruction was more than $10,000
  • Felony probation, with the same terms and conditions for probation listed above

Note: If you have at least two prior convictions for vandalism and were incarcerated or sent on probation on one or more of those occasions, you will not be placed on probation this time. The law states that you must serve the full jail term as required for the current offense.

Legal Defenses for Charges of Vandalism

The consequences of vandalism can be grave, especially if the value of the damaged property is high. You need to do all you can to avoid receiving a conviction. But for that, you need the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney. An experienced attorney will use his/her skills, influence, and available resources to have the court reduce or drop your charges. Fortunately, there are several defense strategies that the attorney can use to convince the court to set you free or lessen your charges. Some of them are:

It Was an Accident

It is possible to damage, deface, or destroy something that belongs to another person accidentally. In that case, you will not be guilty of vandalism. California vandalism law requires the act to have been committed maliciously. Therefore, if it was accidental, there is a chance that the court will drop your charges.

False Allegations

You could have been accused falsely by an ex-wife or ex-boyfriend for vandalism while in the actual sense you are innocent. Sometimes charges of vandalism go hand in hand with domestic violence. In that case, it is not unusual to find an innocent person facing wrong accusations for an offense they have not committed. An ex-partner can accuse you of vandalism for revenge, out of anger or jealousy. People have other reasons why they falsely accuse others of serious offenses. A person can even destroy their property so that they can blame another person for it.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys have encountered cases like these in the past. Therefore, your attorney will know how to investigate and convince the court that you are innocent of those accusations. If he/she manages to convince the court, the court will consequently drop your charges.

Mistaken Identity

Another way in which you can be falsely accused of vandalism in California is through mistaken identity. It could be because of one or more of the following reasons:

  • You look the same as the person who was seen vandalizing a particular property. If the property owner saw someone destroying their property or someone witnessed the vandalism of public property, and you matched the description of that person, the police might arrest and prosecute you in court for the same.
  • You may have been in the company of people who were caught vandalizing property, but you did not participate in the offense. In that case, your attorney will have to convince the court that you did not violate any law.
  • You are the likely suspect in the destruction, damaging, or defacement of a particular property, even though you were not involved. It could be because you jointly own the property with your accuser or live in the same apartment or house.

Vandalism Laws for Juveniles

A larger percentage of vandalism cases in California involve persons below 18 years. It means that parents and guardians could also be affected if their loved ones face charges for damaging, defacing, or destroying another person’s property. In that case, it is advisable to work closely with an experienced criminal attorney who understands the juvenile justice system better. An experienced attorney will take you through the legal process, advise you on what to expect, and take up the defense for your loved one.

Find a Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer Near Me

If you or your loved one is facing vandalism charges, it could help to take time to understand what those charges entail and what options you have in fighting them. An experienced criminal defense attorney will be the right person to call after arrest. Your attorney will explain the legal process, explain your best options, and plan a strong defense to compel the court to either drop or reduce your charges. If you face vandalism charges, call the Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer at 310-502-1314. Let us simplify the legal process and give you the best chance at a favorable outcome.