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What Is Vandalism?

Vandalism is the willful damage, defacement or destruction of public or private property. Examples of vandalism may include:

  • Tagging a local business with unwanted graffiti
  • Breaking a shop window with a crowbar
  • “Keying” or scratching a vehicle’s paint job
  • Coating valuable store product in something foul or rotten
  • Defacing images or statuary
  • Slashing tires

What Is Felony Vandalism?

While in many cases, vandalism is treated as a misdemeanor offense, whether or not an instance of vandalism is treated as a misdemeanor or a felony largely depends on the amount of damage.

In situations where the damage resulting from the act(s) of vandalism are less than $1,000, misdemeanor charges are the likely result. However, if damages exceed $1,000, you could be charged with a felony. The likelihood of facing felony vandalism charges increases if the offense was committed against property belonging to, or under the care of, the federal government.

If vandalism charges are pursued in federal court, the charges will likely be classified as felonies rather than misdemeanors.

What Are Criminal Charges for Vandalism?

The punishment and penalties for vandalism vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Vandalism is punishable by fines, incarceration, being required to replace or repair the damage, or any combination of the three. Vandalism can be classified as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the value of the property damaged or destroyed.

At the federal level, for example, charges related to vandalism — or as the U.S. Code refers to the offense, malicious mischief — are handled in Title 18, Sections 1361 through 1369. If you are found guilty of willfully damaging federal property, you could face up to 10 years jail time in addition to fines if the damage caused exceeds $1,000 in value. If the damage caused is less than $1,000 in value, that potential prison sentence is reduced to no more than one year.

In some states, however, vandalism charges are a bit less clear. In California where damages (covered by California Penal Code Section 594) exceed $400, the offense is treated as a “wobbler.” This means that the offense can be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the evidence at hand and the wishes of the prosecution. Felony vandalism in California results in a penalty of between one and three years behind bars if convicted, in addition to a fine of up to $10,000 as well as restitution to the victim. Misdemeanor vandalism, by contrast, results in a penalty of up to one year jail time in county jail, and a maximum fine of no more than $1,000.

What Are the Penalties for Vandalism Charges Concerning Minors?

Minors accused of vandalism face the same charges as adults. However, the accused will be tried within the juvenile justice system, which affords much more flexibility to courts, judges and prosecutors in terms of sentencing.

Minors convicted of vandalism offenses could be subjected to a period of probation, a fine and restitution to cover the cost of remediating the damages, and in some cases, juvenile detention. The latter option is typically reserved for underage offenders who have committed more serious instances of vandalism, while juvenile diversion programs are often the penalty for first-time offenders and those who have committed less serious crimes related to property damage.

Graffiti vs. Vandalism Charges: What’s the Difference?

In some jurisdictions, charges involving unwanted graffiti are rolled into broader vandalism charges.

However, in some states, graffiti (also often referred to as malicious mischief) is differentiated from the crime of vandalism (termed as public offenses). If you are convicted of malicious mischief, you might face up to six months in jail for graffiti damage costing $250 or less to the victim, or up to 364 days in jail for damage costing between $250 and $5,000.

If the damage exceeds $5,000, authorities may escalate the charge to a felony, which could lead to up to four years in state prison.

How Can a Vandalism Attorney Help?

If you’re facing vandalism or graffiti charges, you should seek the services of an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Regardless of age or whether the charge you are facing is classified as a felony or misdemeanor, a conviction could mean a serious fine, probation, jail or detention time, and a mark on your criminal record.

If you have been charged with vandalism, an attorney can help you with:

  • How vandalism is legally defined
  • What the prosecutor must prove to convict you of vandalism
  • What defenses are available to you
  • Whether the facts of your case support the charge of vandalism
  • The possible punishment that could be imposed in your case
  • Whether the charges can be dropped if you agree to pay to repair the damages

How a Vandalism Attorney Can Help

Any criminal charge is a serious matter, so you may choose to retain legal representation. A criminal defense attorney can assist you in many ways, including:

  • Investigating the factual circumstances of your case to dispute the charge
  • Negotiating with the prosecutor to establish bail, reduce or dismiss the charge, make a plea agreement, recommend an appropriate sentence
  • Representing you throughout the progress of your case, from arrest to sentencing
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