Understanding Vandalism Charges
Vandalism may be done out of revenge, as a political statement, or as artwork. Whatever the reason, if you deface, damage, or destroy someone else’s property without their consent, it is a crime.
There is not always a lot of evidence that someone committed vandalism. Instead, prosecutors often rely on having the defendant plead guilty by threatening more serious charges. Before admitting to any crime, make sure you understand your rights. If you are facing vandalism charges, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney for legal advice.
Vandalism involves intentional destruction or defacing of property without the owner’s permission. It can involve damage to public or private property. The term “vandal” comes from a group of Germanic people who sacked and looted Rome more than 1,500 years ago. The term vandalism is now associated with any destruction of property.
Acts of vandalism could include any type of damage or destruction of another person’s property, including:
- Keying an ex-partner’s car
- Tagging a fence with spray paint
- Knocking over a statue
- Covering a house in toilet paper
- Throwing eggs at a car
- Chopping down a neighbor’s tree
- Slashing the tires of a construction vehicle
- Carving words into a bench
Graffiti with markers or spray paint is one of the most common examples of vandalism. Graffiti may include political statements or be a part of performance art. While a graffiti artist may consider their tagging of a wall or building as art, even a beautiful mural could be vandalism if it is done without the owner’s permission.
There are criminal penalties for anyone convicted of vandalism. The laws for vandalism vary by state, and the consequences of a conviction depend on the individual situation. For example, California penal code 594 has increasing penalties for “malicious mischief” the worse the damage gets.
Factors that could affect the penalties may include:
- The cost to repair the property
- The extent of the vandalism
- The victim of the vandalism
- If the vandalism put someone in danger
- If the vandalism occurred on public property
- If a memorial or monument was damaged
- If the vandalism occurred by firearm
- Whether you have a prior criminal record
In most cases, vandalism is a misdemeanor. Misdemeanor vandalism penalties can include up to a year in jail and a fine. Instead of jail time, the court might impose community service and probation. If the damage was more serious, vandalism could be charged as a felony. Felony vandalism could include more than one year in prison and more expensive fines.
You may also have to compensate the property owner for the damage. Restitution could include the amount it costs the owner to repair or clean up the damage.
Not all property destruction is treated equally. Some vandalism could be considered a hate crime. This could include painting racial graffiti on someone’s house, breaking the windows of a church, or knocking over gravestones. If the vandalism is motivated by bias against someone’s race, religion, or sexual orientation, the prosecutor may add hate crime charges, which could come with enhanced penalties.
If you are facing vandalism charges, the prosecutor has to prove every element of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecutor fails to prove all the elements of the charge, then you should be found “not guilty.”
Instead of fighting the vandalism charge, some defendants choose to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence like community service. The prosecutor may also threaten to press additional charges like trespassing or burglary to convince you to plead guilty. Make sure you understand your options before agreeing to a plea bargain. The prosecutor may have a much weaker case than you know.
There are common legal defense strategies for vandalism criminal charges. Before rushing to accept a plea bargain, protect your rights and talk to a criminal defense lawyer about the options for your case, which may include:
- Mistaken identity
- Lack of evidence, such as surveillance footage that places you at the scene
- The owner consented to altering the property
- Police conducted an illegal search
- The property damage happened by accident
Even if the property damage only seemed minor, a criminal record could harm your reputation and your future job opportunities. In some states, you may be able to have prior offenses like vandalism expunged or have your record sealed. In other states, there may be no way to erase a prior conviction. Criminal defense attorneys understand what’s at stake and how to build a strong case.
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