What is Criminal Mischief?

By Teo Spengler - Updated February 16, 2018
Graffiti patterns over old urban concrete wal

You say criminal mischief, I say vandalism. Like po-tay-to and po-tah-to, they mean the same thing. "Criminal mischief" is a kind of catch-all crime. Does it include graffiti? Yes. Smashing a windshield? Yes. Sprinkling cat litter around someone's garage? Keying a car? Busting up an abandoned building? Smashing crockery in someone's house? Planting an explosive? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. The more damage done, the more serious a crime it becomes.

Tip

Criminal mischief is a property crime committed by vandals. Although different state laws use different terms to describe the offense, it basically involves intentionally or recklessly destroying or damaging someone else's property without the owner's permission.

A Catch-All Crime

When you think about the thousand ugly little acts that fit under the umbrella of vandalism, it makes sense that legislators write a catch-all crime like criminal mischief into the statutes. Trying to identify each potential way someone intent on damaging property might do it would take time. It might also require more imagination than the average lawmaker has.

The term "mischief" may bring to mind young, somewhat outdated rascals like Dennis the Menace or Huck Finn. But there is nothing amusing about criminal mischief. Would you laugh if you came out of your house to find your car scratched front to back by keys? Or obscenities painted over your garage door? Nor do state officials appreciate "mischief" done to city buses, abandoned buildings or seawalls.

Broad Outlines of Criminal Mischief

Criminal mischief is largely a state crime. Its vague perimeters are drawn by each state legislature. Although the exact words used may differ, the broad outlines are the same. It is a property crime involving intentional damage to property belonging to the public or to others.

The basic elements of criminal mischief are: intention or reckless damage, to other people's property, without permission. That means that:

  • Keying your own car is not criminal mischief.  
  • Painting graffiti on the walls of a building at the request of the owner is not criminal mischief. 
  • Accidentally scratching the neighbor's car is not criminal mischief.  

State Law Definitions: Different but the Same

In Texas, for example, the statute defines criminal mischief in this way: "A person commits an offense if, without the effective consent of the owner: (1) he intentionally or knowingly damages or destroys the tangible property of the owner; (2) he intentionally or knowingly tampers with the tangible property of the owner and causes pecuniary loss or substantial inconvenience to the owner or a third person; or (3) he intentionally or knowingly makes markings, including inscriptions, slogans, drawings, or paintings, on the tangible property of the owner."

In Oregon, the law describes the crime as intentionally or recklessly damaging property of another without permission. It is essentially the same as the Texas definition. All state definitions contain the same elements.

Misdemeanor or Felony

Given the broad range of activities included in criminal mischief, the damage done might be small and it might be large. Many states have dealt with this uncertainty by developing degrees of the crime. The distinction is often the monetary amount of damage done.

Florida statutes are typical. They provide that, when the criminal mischief damage is $200 or less, the offense is a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable by up to 60 days in jail. If the damage to the property is between $201 and $999, it's a misdemeanor of the first degree punishable by up to one year in the jail. When the damage done is greater than $1,000, it's a felony of the third degree, punishable by up to five years in state prison.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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