7 Things You Should Know About “Vandalism” Laws

Penal Code Section 594

Definition Of Vandalism

Vandalism is the act of intentionally harming someone else’s property.

What does “malicious” mean with regard to vandalism?

Under the law, if you intentionally do a wrongful act or if you act with the unlawful intent to annoy or injure someone else.1

Does it have to be graffiti to qualify as vandalism?

  1. Vandalism includes graffiti, but it also includes other inscribed material, damaging or destroying real or personal property. Inscribed material includes an unauthorized inscription, word, figure, mark, or design that is written, marked, etched, scratched, drawn, or painted on real or personal property.  As shown in the examples above, it can additionally be simply harming someone else’s property.

Does the damage have to be permanent?

  1. Penal Code section 594 also includes simply “defacing” real or personal property.2 Therefore, if the damage has to be cleaned off, replaced, etc., it is still vandalism.

What if your child commits vandalism?

If a minor is personally unable to pay a fine levied for acts prohibited, the parent of that minor shall be liable for payment of the fine. A court may waive payment of the fine, or any part thereof, by the parent upon a finding of good cause.

How Does The Prosecutor Prove The Charge

To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the prosecutor must prove that:

  • The defendant maliciously
  • Defaced with graffiti or with other inscribed material, or
  • Damaged, or
  • Destroyed real or personal property

AND

  • The defendant did not own the property

Is It An Infraction, Misdemeanor or Felony?

Vandalism Causing Less than $250 in Damage

If any of the above conduct occurs, and the damages are less than $250, then you may be charged with vandalism, as an infraction3

Vandalism Causing Less than $400 In Damage

If any of the above conduct occurs, and the damages are less than $400, and exceed $250, then you may be charged with vandalism, as a misdemeanor.

Vandalism Causing More than $400 in Damage

If any of the above is done, and the damages exceed $400, then you may be charged with vandalism, as a felony.

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Examples Of Vandalism

Example #1:  Jacob and Alex are art students, and typically spray paint their motivational art work on blank canvases. One day, while leaving class, the two walk past an abandoned building near their school. Suddenly inspired by the landscaping and surrounding structures, Jacob and Alex decide to display their art work on the side of this building, in an effort to enhance the neighborhood. While spray painting various phrases, portraits and designs on the building, a police officer pulls up behind them and places both Jacob and Alex under arrest for vandalism under Penal Code section 594. Jacob and Alex later find out that the building they chose to display their artwork on was actually a historical site, previously designated as a landmark by the City. The cost to clean and refurbish the wall of the historical building amounts to over $1,000.

Based on these circumstances, the prosecutor IS LIKELY able to prove both Jacob and Alex are GUILTY of:

  1. Vandalism under California Penal Code section 594
  2. It will likely also be categorized as a felony

Jacob and Alex are likely guilty of Felony Vandalism because, on one hand, it is clear that the prosecutor is more than likely to prove both Jacob and Alex guilty of felony vandalism, as they “defaced real or personal property with graffiti or other inscribed material,” and the damages exceeded the amount of $400, thereby amounting to a felony offense. Additionally, because the property belonged to a public entity, such as the city, it can be automatically inferred that they did not have the permission to deface the property. However, an attorney may be able to convince the prosecutor that the graffiti damage was not done “maliciously,” as specifically required under the law, due to the fact that Jacob and Alex are art students, who at the time, believed they were beautifying an abandoned building.

Example #2:  Michael is going through a tough breakup with his longtime girlfriend. One evening, after leaving happy hour, Michael decides to stop by his ex-girlfriend’s house and puncture all four of her tires, and left a note on her windshield saying, “Good luck moving on now.” The next morning, Tina walks to her car to go to work and sees the four punctured tires. Seeing the note, and recognizing the handwriting, Tina immediately calls the police, who charge Michael with vandalism under Penal Code section 594. It costs Tina $300 to replace all four of her tires that morning.

Based on these circumstances, the prosecutor IS able to prove Michael is GUILTY of:

  1. Vandalism under California Penal Code section 594
  2. It will likely also be categorized as a misdemeanor

Michael is guilty of vandalism, as a misdemeanor because the amount of damages caused to Tina’s vehicle did not exceed $400. The prosecutor can clearly prove that Michael “maliciously damaged” the property of Tina. With an attorney, the penalties that Michael faces can be minimal, and can ultimately be expunged by an attorney from his record.

Example #3:  Dana is walking to her apartment, holding a cup of coffee in one hand, and her groceries in the other hand. As she walks past her least favorite neighbor, Fred, in the hallway on the way to her apartment door, Dana reaches into her purse for her house keys and accidently spills her coffee on her neighbor’s cell phone, which Fred had in his hand at the time, causing permanent liquid damage. Assuming that Dana ruined his cell phone on purpose due to their bad history as neighbors, Fred calls the police. Fred tells the officers that the cell phone’s retail value is $450. Fred tells the police that Dana purposely destroyed his phone and the officers charge Dana with felony vandalism under Penal Code section 594.

Based on these circumstances, the prosecutor IS NOT LIKELY able to prove Dana is guilty of vandalism.

For starters, an attorney may be able to call the value of the cell phone into question, to prevent Dana from being charged with a felony. An attorney may be able to prove that the actual retail value of the cell phone does not exceed $400, for an initial charge reduction from a felony to a misdemeanor. Also, although Dana did, in fact, destroy Fred’s personal property, an attorney should be able to raise an accidental defense and prove that, Dana did not do so “maliciously,” as she accidentally spilled her coffee, causing the damage to Fred’s phone, and that she should be found not guilty. Additionally so, an attorney may be able to negotiate with the prosecutor to have Dana pay the cost of replacing Fred’s phone in exchange for a dismissal, commonly referred to as a “civil compromise.”

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Legal Defenses

Depending on the circumstances, an experienced and diligent attorney, like the attorneys of the Aizman Law Firm, will evaluate your case and assess the most effective legal defenses to assist in negotiating a possible charge reduction, or if applicable, dismissal of the charges. Below are possible legal defenses to a charges under Penal Code Code §594:

  1. The damage was not done “maliciously.”  Penal Code section 594 specifically requires that a defendant “maliciously” commit the damaging act. Therefore, if the damage was done negligently, unintentionally, or even accidentally, an attorney may be able to prove that you should not be found guilty or charged with the offense.
  1. The property belongs to you. Penal Code section 594 specifically requires that the property belongs to someone else. Therefore, if the damage done was done to your own property, then an attorney may be able to prove that you should not be found guilty or charged with the offense.
  1. There is insufficient evidence to prove that you actually committed the vandalism offense.  A diligent and conscientious defense attorney can show the prosecutor that they do not have enough evidence to prove that you actually caused the damage to the real or personal property, or to establish the actual value of the property. (For example: An item bearing only sentimental value).

Penalties & Sentencing

Infraction:

  • Fine, or community service, as determined by the court

Misdemeanor:

  • Up to five (5) years summary (informal) probation
  • Community Labor, including graffiti cleanup
  • Community Service, as determined by the court
  • Up to 1 year in county jail
  • Stay Away Order from vandalized location
  • Up to $1,000 fine: If prior offense for vandalism, fines increase up to $5,000
  • Driver’s license suspension up to two (2) years4

Felony:

  • Up to five (5) years formal probation
  • Fine up to $4000, as determined by the court
  • 16 months-3 years in prison
  • Community labor
  • Community Service
  • Stay Away Order from vandalized location
  • Driver’s license suspension up to two years
  • If convicted of a felony, this charge will carry all the weight and stigma of being deemed a “felon” under the eyes of the law, including but not limited to: Lose right to possess firearm, lose right to vote, lose right to sit on a jury, lose right to hold public office, must provide law enforcement with DNA sample, immigration consequences, as a drug abuser, if you are a noncitizen.

Expungement For Vandalism

  • Find Out if You Are Eligible To Have Your Vandalism Conviction Expunged
  • Stop Worrying About Employer & Landlord Background Checks
  • Don’t Let The Past Determine Your Future

Related Offenses

Penal Code section 602—Trespassing:  Entering upon lands or buildings owned by any other person without the license of the owner or legal occupant, injuring, damaging, gathering, or carrying away property of the owner or legal occupant, whether enclosed or unenclosed by a fence, with the intention of interfering with, obstructing, or injuring any property or property rights carried by the owner of the land, the owner’s agent, or by the person in lawful possession.

Penal Code section 459—Burglary:  Every person who enters any house, store, or any inhabited dwelling, with intent to commit larceny is guilty of burglary.

Penal Code section 451—Arson:  A person is guilty of arson when he or she willfully and maliciously sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned or who aids, counsels, or procures the burning of, any structure, forest land, or property.5

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Footnotes

  1. People v. Lopez (1986) 176 Cal.App.3d 545, 550 [222 Cal.Rptr. 101]. []
  2. Id []
  3. An infraction is a minor offense. Most infractions are written on a “ticket” form but infractions can also be filed by the prosecutor on a “complaint” document. An infraction is usually punishable by a fine and if the fine is paid, there is no jail time. Not for violations of the Vehicle Code []
  4. Driving Privilege Suspension: Vandalism: 13202.6. (a) (1) For every conviction of a person for a violation of Section 594, 594.3, or 594.4 of the Penal Code, committed while the person was 13 years of age or older, the court shall suspend the person’s driving privilege for not more than two years, except when the court finds that a personal or family hardship exists that requires the person to have a driver’s license for his or her own, or a member of his or her family’s, employment, school, or medically related purposes. If the person convicted does not yet have the privilege to drive, the court shall order the department to delay issuing the privilege to drive for not less than one year nor more than three years subsequent to the time the person becomes legally eligible to drive. However, if there is no further conviction for violating Section 594, 594.3, or 594.4 of the Penal Code in a 12-month period after the conviction, the court, upon petition of the person affected, may modify the order imposing the delay of the privilege. For each successive offense, the court shall suspend the person’s driving privilege for those possessing a license or delay the eligibility for those not in possession of a license at the time of their conviction for one additional year. (2) A person whose driving privilege is suspended or delayed for an act involving vandalism in violation of Section 594, 594.3, or 594.4 of the Penal Code, may elect to reduce the period of suspension or delay imposed by the court by performing community service under the supervision of the probation department. The period of suspension or delay ordered under paragraph (1) shall be reduced at the rate of one day for each hour of community service performed. If the jurisdiction has adopted a graffiti abatement program as defined in subdivision (f) of Section 594 of the Penal Code, the period of suspension or delay ordered under paragraph (1) shall be reduced at the rate of one day for each day of community service performed in the graffiti abatement program when the defendant and his or her parents or legal guardians are responsible for keeping a specified property in the community free of graffiti for a specified period of time. The suspension shall be reduced only when the specified period of participation has been completed. Participation of a parent or legal guardian is not required under this paragraph if the court deems this participation to be detrimental to the defendant, or if the parent or legal guardian is a single parent who must care for young children. For purposes of this paragraph, “community service” means cleaning up graffiti from any public property, including public transit vehicles. (3) As used in this section, the term “conviction” includes the findings in juvenile proceedings specified in Section 13105. (b) (1) Whenever the court suspends driving privileges pursuant to subdivision (a), the court in which the conviction is had shall require all drivers’ licenses held by the person to be surrendered to the court. The court shall, within 10 days following the conviction, transmit a certified abstract of the conviction, together with any drivers’ licenses surrendered, to the department. (2) Violations of restrictions imposed pursuant to this section are subject to Section 14603.(c) The suspension, restriction, or delay of driving privileges pursuant to this section shall be in addition to any penalty imposed upon conviction of a violation of Section 594, 594.3, or 594.4 of the Penal Code. []
  5. A person is guilty of arson when he or she willfully and maliciously sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned or who aids, counsels, or procures the burning of, any structure, forest land, or property. (a) Arson that causes great bodily injury is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for five, seven, or nine years. (b) Arson that causes an inhabited structure or inhabited property to burn is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for three, five, or eight years. (c) Arson of a structure or forest land is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or six years. (d) Arson of property is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, two, or three years. For purposes of this paragraph, arson of property does not include one burning or causing to be burned his or her own personal property unless there is an intent to defraud or there is injury to another person or another person’s structure, forest land, or property. (e) In the case of any person convicted of violating this section while confined in a state prison, prison road camp, prison forestry camp, or other prison camp or prison farm, or while confined in a county jail while serving a term of imprisonment for a felony or misdemeanor conviction, any sentence imposed shall be consecutive to the sentence for which the person was then confined. []