When most people hear of vandalism, they immediately think of teenage kids defacing buildings or destroying mailboxes. But, grown-ups also find themselves charged with vandalism in California. The crime takes many kinds of activities that anyone could be involved.

The law that describes vandalism as a crime is PEN 594 in California. If you become charged with violating PEN 594, the penalties are steep if convicted and include hefty fines and jail time. But, with an experienced lawyer from California Criminal Lawyer Group, you can fight the allegations and achieve a desirable outcome.

Defining Vandalism according to PEN 594

Vandalism is a wobbler offense in California. The offense's definition involves the elements the prosecutor in your case must determine. Without proving these elements or facts of the crime, the court cannot find you guilty. These elements, according to PEN 594, are:

  • With malice, you defaced the property with inscribed material or graffiti damaging or destroying it
  • That the property you destroyed belonged to another person or you shared ownership with them and
  • The value of the destruction was below $400, which will lead to a misdemeanor charge. Or above $400, resulting in a felony charge

It is critical to understand some terms or phrases used to describe vandalism. Thes include:

Defaced with Inscribed Material or Graffiti

Inscribed material or graffiti is any unauthorized writing or inscription on a property that was not originally there and damaged it. The unauthorized inscription can be in the form of a mark, word, design, figure written, etched, scratched, marked, painted, or drawn on another person's property. If you inscribe or draw on another person's property using any tool, the offense qualifies as vandalism.

For instance, if you quarrel with your ex-boyfriend and break up over infidelity, you may feel so angry and seek revenge by keying his car and leaving severe damage. In this case, your boyfriend can report you for vandalism because you defaced his vehicle using a sharp object.

When the law talks about real property, it includes land, building, home, or anything on the land. On the other hand, personal property means items found inside the victim's car or house, such as furniture, among others.

According to the law, to be found guilty of this offense does not require you to use or make a permanent mark on the property you deface through inscription or graffiti. For instance, you board a train for long-distance travel. Out of boredom, you take out a marker pen and inscribe your name on the window. The ink from the marker pen is easy to clean, but you can still face charges for vandalizing the train. The fact remains that your actions defaced the train, which is not your property, by inscribing on its window, according to PEN 594.

Another Person's Property or One that you Co-owned with them

Under this element, the law seems obvious, but a few issues are worth discussing. First, if the vandalism is said to have happened on public property like a bench in the park, it is obvious the jury will assume the property wasn't yours. Further, it will be concluded that you had no permit to damage, destroy, or deface the bench.

According to PEN 594, you can also be charged with vandalism if you destroy property or items that you jointly own with someone else. This means business partners or married couples can accuse their vandalism partners if they deface or destroy what they hold together.

For instance, Peter owns a landscaping business with Chad. Chad is in charge of the finances while Peter is the business's face or takes care of the operations. Although the company seems to be growing with more clients coming in, it is facing financial difficulties. Peter confronts Chad to know what is going on, yet they have more paying clients each day. During the meeting, emotions flare up when Peter discovers Chad cannot account for most of their earnings and assumes Chad misappropriated or stole them.

Peter spray paints "Chad is a thief" on their business trucks or offices out of anger. Because the business is owned together, Chad can sue Peter for vandalism.


Malice, as an element of vandalism, happens when you intentionally or purposely do something wrong, or you unlawfully do something against another knowing it will harm or annoy them. However, if your intentions were not malicious and accidentally damaged the property, you cannot be charged with vandalism.

For instance, you parked your car at a department store to buy a few things. When you come out, you find another car parked next to you. As you open the door to your car to put your purchases inside, you accidentally scratch the vehicle, damaging it. In such a case, the destruction was not intentional or malicious but accidental. If the vehicle owner accuses you of vandalism, it is unlikely you will be found guilty of the offense.

Damage Amount or Value

The value of your damage or the cost of repairs is considered when deciding how to charge you. If the cost of repairing the damage you caused is below $ 400, you can only become accused of a misdemeanor. However, if the damage is above $ 400, the offense is a wobbler. A wobbler means you can face either misdemeanor or felony vandalism charges

This makes vandalism similar to particular theft crimes, whose punishments depend on the damage caused or the stolen property's cost. The value and your criminal history play a significant role in the prosecutor's charges against you. Additionally, if you face allegations of vandalizing more than one property and determining they were for the same intent or plan, the acts are put together. The cost of the property damaged from all the actions is also added up, and if it is above $ 400, you may face charges on felony vandalism.

For instance, in the earlier example, Peter and Chad's argument is so heated that Peter takes Chad's cell phone and hits it across the wall damaging it. He further goes to the parking lot and smashes Chad's vehicle with a bat destroying the windscreen and lights. These are different acts of vandalism, but the cost of the destruction amounts to $ 700. In this case, the prosecutor will charge Peter with vandalism as a felony offense.

Even when you face felony charges by the prosecution, the jury can reduce the charges to misdemeanor ones. If they think the damage's value is less than what has been presented by the prosecutor, they can ask you to face misdemeanor charges instead. Your lawyer can also present independent evidence from experts that value the damage caused and have the felony charges dropped for misdemeanor ones.

Although a vehicle is a property, vandalizing another person's car is not prosecuted under PEN 594. If you become charged with destroying another person's vehicle or defacing it without their consent, you will become charged according to VEH 10853.

Possible Penalties for Violating PEN 594

California has a complicated scheme on how vandalism penalties are issued. Different vandalism offenses attract varied charges. As earlier stated, you can face either misdemeanor or felony vandalism charges depending on the cost of the destruction or damage.

If faced with a misdemeanor vandalism charge, it means you have no prior conviction on the same offense, and the damages you caused are below $ 400. A conviction on misdemeanor charges carries the following penalties:

  • A year of county jail time or less
  • A fine of not more than $ 1,000. However, with a prior vandalism conviction, you can be asked to pay up to $ 5,000 in fines
  • Summary probation lasting between three and five years

If you are found guilty of the offense, probation is one of the best outcomes from the trial. However, a probation sentence has various conditions that must be fulfilled, and if not, a revocation of the sentence is possible. Some of these conditions are:

  • A suspension of your driver's license for two years. If without one, your application to obtain it may be delayed for one to three years
  • You may be ordered to attend counseling or therapy
  • Community service for specified hours. Some of the tasks here may include repairing, replacing, or cleaning the damaged or defaced property
  • Being asked to ensure the public property you damaged stays graffiti-free or any other property the court will ask you to protect for a year

If the prosecutor charges you with felony vandalism, it means the value of the damage caused is above $ 400. The decision to prosecute you for felony vandalism is also arrived at after considering the offense's facts and background. This means, even when the damage is $ 400, and over, you receive misdemeanor charges when the crime qualifies as a wobbler.

If you are charged with a misdemeanor while the damage caused is above $ 400, the penalties are steeper than those of a standard misdemeanor charge. These penalties include:

  • A county jail time of a year or less
  • A fine not exceeding $ 10,000. However, if the damage you caused was over $ 10,000, you may be charged with a fine not exceeding $ 50,000
  • You can also be sentenced to probation with similar terms as earlier discussed

If, on the other hand, you are found guilty on felony charges, the punishments you are likely to receive include:

  • Formal probation sentence with a mandatory county jail time not exceeding a year or sixteen or twenty-four or thirty-six months of jail
  • A fine not exceeding $ 10,000, but if the damage caused is over $ 10,000, you may be ordered to pay a fine of $ 50,000 or less
  • If you receive probation, you must meet the terms or conditions of your probation as earlier discussed

Another critical thing to remember is that if you have a past vandalism conviction on two different occasions or more and you earned probation or jail sentence on one of them, the current charges you are facing will automatically lead to a prison sentence.

Penalties when Graffiti Causes Damages of $ 250 and below according to PEN 640.5 and 640.6

Suppose the vandalism charges against you involved destruction by graffiti or another inscription, and the value of repairing the damage is below $ 250. In that case, you may face lesser charges with less severe penalties.

The discretion to prosecute you on a lesser misdemeanor charge, according to PEN 640.5 or 640.6, is the prosecutors. If you face vandalism charges under these laws, the penalties you face depends on whether you are a first offender or a repeat offender.

First Offender Conviction

Under PEN 640.5 and 640.6, a first time offender in vandalism graffiti receives an infraction sentence. The penalties for an infraction include a fine not exceeding $ 1,000 in addition to community service.

Second Offender Conviction

If with a previous conviction on vandalism under these laws and the graffiti repair cost is $ 250 or less, it is a misdemeanor offense. However, PEN 594 carries steeper penalties than PEN 640.5 and 640.6, despite all being misdemeanors. The penalties for a repeat offense under PEN 640.5 and 640.6 are:

  • Six months of county jail or less
  • A fine not over $ 2,000
  • Community service in addition to the sentences above or instead of them

Third Vandalism Conviction

If you repeat the offense for the third time and in the previous ones you received jail time or probation on any, and your current charge will cost $ 250 to repair or less, you face misdemeanor charges. The penalties under PEN 640.5 and 640.6 are:

  • County jail sentence for not more than a year
  • A fine not exceeding $ 3,000
  • Community service instead of or in addition to the above penalties

Other Kinds of Vandalism and their Punishments

Vandalism is diverse, making PEN 594 not to be the only law that is violated when you commit the offense. Other sections of the Penal Code describe various vandalism offenses and their punishment. These different statutes focus on punishing the violation, depending on its type. Additionally, the property vandalized instead of the value of the destruction caused is also a consideration. These laws include:

Vandalism in Worship Places – PEN 594.3

If accused of vandalizing a spiritual place such as a temple, church, or mosque, the offense is a wobbler in California. This is irrespective of how much the repairs will cost. The penalties under this statute are steeper than on standard vandalism. A misdemeanor for violating PEN 594.3 earns you the sentences below:

  • County jail time for not more than a year
  • A fine not over $ 1,000
  • Misdemeanor probation with the conditions earlier discussed

If the prosecutor charged you with a felony for violating PEN 594.3, the penalties include:

  • Imprisonment for sixteen, twenty-four, or thirty-six months
  • A fine of not above $ 10,000
  • Formal probation with conditions as earlier discussed

If you face and become convicted of vandalism as a hate crime where you committed the offense to scare or intimidate the worshippers, your sentence automatically becomes a felony. PEN 594.35 is another statute similar in punishment as PEN 594.3. Under this, vandalizing a mortuary or cemetery is punished more severely than standard vandalism under PEN 594.

Vandalism Using Caustic Chemicals – PEN 594.4

If you face allegations of vandalism using chemical substances such as butyric acid, the offense is a wobbler, irrespective of the repair cost for the damages caused. If you become convicted of a misdemeanor charge, you will earn a six-month county jail or less. On the other hand, a felony conviction will earn you sixteen or twenty-four or thirty-six months of jail time.

The fine for violating PEN 594.4 is steep, ranging from $ 1,000 to $ 50,000. This fine is charged based on the damage you caused to the property. The judge can also sentence you to probation for the offense, but the terms must be obeyed, as discussed earlier.

Vandalism near a Freeway or Highway – PEN 640.7 and 640.8

Destruction can be committed on a freeway or highway. Whether the offense is committed on or close to these places, you will face misdemeanor charges whose punishments include:

  • Six months or less of county jail time, if it is your first offense near or on a highway. And a year or less if a repeat offense near or on a freeway.
  • Paying a fine of $ 1,000 for highway vandalism or less and a fine of $ 5,000 for freeway vandalism or less
  • Community service or counseling

Legal Defenses when Charged with Vandalism

The penalties discussed earlier show that the offense is severely punished. Fortunately, an allegation must be proven for you to receive any of these punishments. With a skilled criminal attorney, the prosecutor's case can be challenged to create reasonable doubts that can earn you a favorable outcome. Some defenses include:

Accidental Vandalism

If you caused damage to another person's property without malice or intent, you are not guilty of vandalism, according to PEN 594. For instance, if you accidentally scratched another vehicle while getting to your car, the incident was not intentional but accidental. If the damage you caused was accidental, you could use this as your defense. Always remember that under PEN 594, the prosecutor must prove malicious intent to have you convicted of the offense.

False Allegations

You can also be accused of vandalism falsely. For instance, if you disagree with your ex-spouse and feel you are unfair, she may be compelled to seek revenge against you or control you. In this case, she can cause destruction herself and accuse you of vandalism. Sometimes even when something was accidentally damaged, a person can accuse you of vandalism to get back at you.

Equally, a person that commits vandalism can accuse you of the act to cover themselves against a criminal charge. For instance, a person with a vendetta against you and knows you have a history of vandalism can commit the offense and frame you for it.

This, if not aggressively defended, your history can significantly contribute to your guilty verdict. However, in these scenarios, your attorney can present convincing arguments with evidence to have you acquitted.

Mistaken Identity

Mistaken identity in vandalism is common. This is especially so because most offenders try to disguise themselves, and a witness can unintentionally but wrongfully identify you as the perpetrator. Mistaken identity often happens if:

  • The description of the perpetrator matches you
  • You were in the company of the perpetrator even when you never violated the law yourself
  • A witness or victim mistakenly thought you caused damage to their property, even when you never did

Related Offenses to PEN 594

Several offenses under the California law can be prosecuted alongside or instead of vandalism. Some of these offenses are:

PEN 602 – Trespass

PEN 602 criminalizes the entering into someone else's property with no consent from them. In most cases, as you commit vandalism, it means you were illegally on the person's property. If you entered the property belonging to another person without their permission and vandalized it, you face two charges. The prosecutor will, in this case, prosecute you with misdemeanor trespass and vandalism.

Burglary PEN 459

PEN 459 is the statute that prohibits entering a property belonging to another to steal their belongings inside. Burglary is a serious offense that can earn you six years imprisonment if the structure you entered was inhabited. Additionally, if on entering the structure, you not only stole but vandalized it, you will face two charges. The penalties faced in this case are steeper as compared to vandalism on its own.

Find a Criminal Attorney Lawyer Near Me

Vandalism is severely punished if the prosecution proves allegations against you. Besides the legal penalties, a criminal record could adversely affect your life. When faced with vandalism allegations, you should fight against it to achieve a favorable outcome.

At California Criminal Lawyer Group, we have experience defending persons facing these charges. We have helped many clients have their charges dropped or reduced. Call us at 408-622-0204 and allow us to defend you strongly against the accusations.