The bulk of vandalism laws in California are found in the state's penal code under malicious mischief. While this alliterative title of Penal Code Section 594 may make vandalism sound like a fun lark, the laws are quite broad, and the consequences are often nothing to laugh at. Regularly dubbed a "wobbler," vandalism charges can be either misdemeanors or felonies, and they come with consequences ranging from community service to imprisonment to tens of thousands of dollars in fines. More than that, the state's legal definition of vandalism applies to a whole lot more than just spray-painting a wall.
Vandalism Laws in California: Definition
First, it's crucial to know exactly how California law defines vandalism. According to the Golden State's penal code, vandalism occurs when someone "maliciously commits any of the following acts with respect to any real or personal property not his or her own":
- Defaces with graffiti or other inscribed material.
The property in question may include real property, such as buildings and land, personal property, vehicles, signs, fixtures, furnishings or any property that belongs to a public entity. As for graffiti or other inscribed material, California law notes that these unauthorized acts may take the form of drawn, painted, scratched, written, marked or etched:
Of course, these definitions aren't 100 percent inclusive. The key factor here is that the defacement is unauthorized – a whole laundry list of various defacement methods and tools will qualify as vandalism at the court's discretion.
Vandalism Laws in California: Punishment
The legal consequences for vandalism in California are assessed relative to the amount of property damage involved. When the amount of defacement, damage or destruction is valued at less than $400, the act is punishable by up to one year in county jail, a fine of $1,000 or less, or a combination of both. If the defendant has previously be convicted of vandalism, however, the fees can go up to $5,000.
If the amount of monetary damages is $400 or more, the potential jail time remains the same, but the fines can increase to up to $10,000. In cases of property destruction valued at $10,000 or more, those fines can rocket to up to $50,000. When the defendant is a minor, the responsibility of paying fines falls to the parents or guardians, though the court may waive the fines in part or in whole if there's reasonable cause to do so.
In addition to jail time and fines, California courts may order the defendant to clean, replace or repair the damaged property. In some cases, they may even require the defendant to clean up other community properties or to ensure that certain properties remain graffiti-free for up to one year. At the court's discretion – when appropriate and feasible, per Penal Code Section 594 – parents or guardians may be involved in the clean up if the defendant is a minor, or the minor may be handed that responsibility.
Similarly, vandalism charges may also be accompanied by consequences such as informal or summary probation, a driver's license suspension of up to two years, required counseling or community service in addition to repairing the vandalism damages.
Felony Vandalism in California
When vandalism damages have a dollar value of less than $400, California law considers the crime a misdemeanor. At damages of $400 or more, vandalism starts to reach into wobbler territory, meaning the offense may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances and the defendant's criminal history.
In many cases, damages above the $400 price tag result in a felony prosecution. For felony vandalism in California, the penalty falls into the higher category, with fines ranging from up to $10,000 to $50,000 – plus potential jail time – depending on the monetary value of the damaged property. It's important to note here that if multiple acts of vandalism were part of the same plan, intention or impulse, the monetary value of all the acts may be added together. If that total value exceeds $400, the defendant may be looking at felony charges.
Acts of vandalism that fall under the category of hate crimes result in automatic felony charges. On a similar note, if a defendant has been convicted of vandalism on at least two previous occasions, he will be required to serve jail or prison time in the current case under California law.
Interesting Wrinkles in California Vandalism Laws
In terms of vandalized property, California law makes an interesting allowance: Vandalism can apply to property owned jointly with another person. For instance, a spouse can vandalize property that belongs to both members of the couple and still be held responsible for the legal consequences. Other special cases include the vandalism of a church, temple or other places of worship, which are always treated as wobblers, so they may be charged as misdemeanors or felonies regardless of the potential repair costs.
When vandalism-related property damage totals less than $250, California Penal Code Sections 640.5 and 640.6 makes certain allowances. In these cases, the prosecutor may choose to charge the defendant under less severe penalties. A first-time offender, for instance, may be charged with an infraction, which results in a maximum fine of $1,000 and community service.
It's also worth noting that the damage does not necessarily have to be permanent for an act to fall under the definition of vandalism in California. In fact, at least as of 2019, state law doesn't put any hard limits of permanence or impermanence.
Vandalism Cases in California Courts
Actions as varied as keying or scratching a car, writing in wet cement and even destroying a partner's household belongings in a domestic argument have all fallen under the definition of vandalism in previous court cases throughout the state, illustrating the crime's rather broad reach, according to Shouse Law Group.
In one famous example, in 2014, pop star Justin Bieber threw eggs at his former neighbor's mansion. In this instance, the Los Angeles County sheriff recommended that the egging be charged as a felony. Ultimately, under a plea deal, Bieber pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge and was ordered to pay $80,900 in restitution, undergo two years of probation, 12 weekly anger management sessions and five days of community labor. Bieber was also required to stay at least 100 yards away from his former neighbor's family.
The case isn't just noteworthy for its famous defendant – it neatly illustrates how California's courts dispense consequences molded to specific acts of vandalism. And, of course, it also illustrates that you probably shouldn't egg your neighbor's house.
The crime of vandalism in California occurs when a person maliciously defaces, damages or destroys personal or real property that's not his own. Punishment can be a fine, jail time or both.
- California Legislative Information: Penal Code: Part 1. Of Crimes and Punishments [25 - 680], Title 14. Malicious Mischief [594 - 625c]
- Shouse California Law Group: Penal Code 594 PC – California Vandalism Law
- CNN: Justin Bieber Pleads No Contest in Egging Case, Gets Probation
- California Legislative Information: Penal Code: Part 1. Of Crimes and Punishments [25 - 680], Title 15. Miscellaneous Crimes [626 - 653.75]
As a freelance writer and small business owner with a decade of experience, Dan has contributed legal- and finance-oriented content to diverse sources including Chron, Fortune, Zacks.com, Motley Fool and MSN Money, among others.