California Penal Code section 594 makes it a crime to maliciously damage, destroy, or deface another’s property. Vandalism can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the amount of the damage.
What does the prosecutor have to prove?
In order to prove the crime of vandalism, the prosecution must show that:
You maliciously (defaced with graffiti or with other inscribed material / damaged / or destroyed) property
You did not own the property; and
The amount of damage was more than $400 (if charged with a felony)
You are considered to have acted maliciously when you intentionally do a wrongful act or when you act with the unlawful intent to annoy or injure someone else.
The property damaged can include both personal property and real property (such as a home or building).
Property owned together can still be prosecuted as vandalism. If you own property jointly, such as with a spouse, you can be convicted of vandalizing your own property.
To act maliciously means that you acted with the intent to do a wrongful act, or that you acted with the intent to annoy or injure someone else. This is used to separate intentional acts from accidental acts.
If the cost to replace or fix the damaged or destroyed item is less than $400, the prosecution will charge you with a misdemeanor.
If the cost is $400 or more, then you may be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony. If you are charged with a felony, the prosecution will be required at trial to establish the third element, that the property was $400 or more in value.
The penalties for vandalism will vary depending on the amount and whether you have been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony.
If you were convicted of a misdemeanor, you may face up to a year in county jail, a maximum fine of $1,000, and summary probation. You will also be ordered to pay restitution to the victim.
In many misdemeanor cases, prior to a conviction, prosecutor offices will allow you to enter into a diversion program.
Most diversion programs require you to pay the victim for the cost of the damage and then to complete some sort of community service.
If you were convicted of a felony, you may face up to three years in custody. If you are granted probation however, you may face up to a maximum of one year in county jail. You will also be fined up to $10,000.
Defenses to Vandalism
One of the more common defenses to vandalism include that you may be a target of a false accusation. Many acts of vandalism occur at night or when no witnesses are around. People then assume they know who must have done it and this is the person reported to the police. After that report, no one stops along the pipeline to ensure that the real person who vandalized the property is the one who is being subjected to the criminal justice system.
Other defenses can include that you lacked the malicious intent when you were committing the act. It may also be possible to show that the property was damaged by accident, and not intentionally.