Any individual who maliciously damages, destroys, or defaces with graffiti or other inscribed materials personal property belonging to another commits an offense under Penal Code 594. Prosecutors will charge you with a misdemeanor or felony violation, depending on the value of the damage. A conviction on misdemeanor charges seeks to punish individuals for property damage valued at less than $400, while a conviction on felony charges is based on property damage value exceeding $400.

You will need legal resources and assistance to fight vandalism charges. It is best to engage a criminal defense attorney for assistance. At Darwish Law, we provide legal aid and representation for individuals arrested and charged with vandalism in Santa Ana. We are here to help you defend yourself should you or a loved one face vandalism charges.

Vandalism Under California Law

PC 594’s definition of vandalism addresses three facts, which prosecutors should prove for you to be found guilty of vandalism. You are only guilty of vandalism if:

  • You maliciously defaced, destroyed, or damaged property — Defacing is achieved through graffiti or other inscribed material
  • The property belongs to another, or you did not own the property
  • The value of the property damage was:
  1. Less than $400 — Which will result in prosecution on misdemeanor charges or
  2. Greater than $400 — Which will result in prosecution on felony charges

A look at each element in detail will help you understand the offense.

Defaced With Graffiti or Other Inscribed Material

Put simply, the use of graffiti and other inscribed materials refers to using unauthorized words, figures, inscriptions, marks, or designs etched, marked, painted, or drawn on personal or real property. The material used in the act is not important. Any material will do as long as it helps an individual achieve any or all of the above.

The law mentions real and personal property. Real property refers to land or any other structure attached to it. This includes buildings, sheds, or a cabin. On the other hand, personal property refers to other assets, including a car, furniture, home appliances, and gardening equipment.

Note: Both permanent and temporary graffiti or other inscribed material are considered in the case.

Property Belongs to Another, or You Did Not Own the Property

Property belonging to another is apparent. However, this element also addresses two critical issues that are not obvious.

The first is on the joint property, as is the case for properties owned by married couples. Both own the property. No one party can claim ownership unilaterally. Should the husband or the wife vandalize said property, he/she violates PC 594.

Public property is the second aspect PC 594 addresses. Public property includes public schools, buildings, facilities, and public parks. Any individual who destroys, damages, or defaces any establishment or property owned by government institutions violates PC 594 since he/she does not own the property.

Malicious Action

Malicious action does not necessarily mean an intent to break the law. You act maliciously when you deliberately commit a wrongful deed or when you act with an illegal intent to injure or annoy another individual.

Therefore, if you accidentally defaced, destroyed, or damaged another’s property, you are not guilty of a PC 594 violation.

The Value of Property Damage

$400 is the reference damage value under consideration. You will be charged with a misdemeanor violation if the value of the repair or replacement cost of the defaced, damaged, or destroyed property is below $400.

The offense is a wobbler if the cost is $400 or greater. This means that prosecutors can elect to pursue misdemeanor or felony violation charges.

Note: If you are alleged to have destroyed, defaced, or damaged several properties and the prosecution proves to the jury that your actions were part of similar intent, impulse, and plan, the value considered will be the aggregate of the combined damage value. If the cost to repair or replace the property exceeds $400, you will face felony charges.

It is also worth pointing out that just because the prosecution charges you with a felony violation does not mean the jury will find you guilty of a felony violation. Prosecutors must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, if the jury is convinced that all the other elements are true, but the value of the loss is less than $400, they will find you guilty of a misdemeanor violation.

Further, the vandalism of vehicles is not addressed by PC 594. It is a violation of Vehicle Code 10853.

Legal Defenses Defendants Can Assert

You can use various legal defenses to challenge the vandalism charges. Consult with your attorney to determine the ideal strategy. These are common defenses applicable in vandalism cases.

     a) False Allegations

You can be falsely accused of vandalism. Cases of false accusations are common. Most of them are born out of hatred, jealousy, a need for revenge, or as an act of retaliation. It is also common for individuals to accidentally cause property damage. However, instead of taking ownership of their actions, they blame another individual to avoid suffering the consequences of their actions.

In other cases, the actual culprit could falsely accuse you to shift attention from them to you as a way of covering up for his/her action. These cases are common with teenagers who throw the blame on a fall guy after vandalizing another's property as a group.

Defense attorneys conduct independent investigations to ascertain the facts of the case. If you were falsely accused, he/she would use this defense in your case.

     b) Insufficient Evidence

Some cases need not proceed to trial due to insufficient evidence. Experienced attorneys approach prosecutors to secure a deal to see defendants serve less harsh penalties. In other situations, the negotiations can secure a dismissal of your charges.

Should the case proceed to trial, your attorney can challenge the evidence presented to the jury aiming to secure a not guilty verdict.

     c) Act Was an Accident

A key element to proving your guilt is malicious action. As explained above, this act requires deliberateness. It is up to the prosecutors to prove willfulness in your action. However, an accident lacks deliberateness. Therefore, your attorney can argue the property damage was merely an accident. 

     d) Mistaken Identity

Cases of mistaken identity are common. There are various ways you could be misidentified as the culprit in a vandalism incident. They include:

  • You match the general description offered by eye-witnesses
  • You are a likely suspect because of your prior vandalism conviction if the vandalism happened in your area
  • You are associated with a group that is suspected of acts of vandalism
  • An individual mistakenly believed that you damaged his/her property

Fighting PC 594 charges using the mistaken identity defense is not easy. However, it is not impossible. Having an alibi significantly improves the chances of fighting the charges.

     e) Property Belongs To You

Prosecutors bear the burden of proving the property belonged to another individual. However, you are not guilty of vandalism if you own the property. PC 594 requires the property to belong to another for you to be criminally liable.

Penalties for Vandalism

The penalties issued if convicted of vandalism are extensive and are based on the circumstances proven by the prosecution.

Misdemeanor Vandalism

A jury will find you guilty of misdemeanor vandalism if the repair or replacement cost is less than $400. A conviction is punishable by:

  • Up to one year in jail
  • A maximum fine of $1,000, or up to $5,000 if you have a prior conviction for vandalism
  • Summary probation as an alternative to jail time. Some of the potential probation terms include:
  1. Attending counseling
  2. Community service — Primarily, you will be tasked with cleaning up, repairing, or replacing damaged property
  3. Tasked with preventing graffiti damage to the damaged property or another property in the community for up to one year
  4. A driver’s license suspension of up to two years — If you do not have a driver’s license, your eligibility to obtain a driver’s license will be delayed by one to three years.

Felony Vandalism

If the jury is satisfied that the cost of repairing or replacing the defaced, damaged, or destroyed property is $400 or more, you will be found guilty of a misdemeanor or felony violation, depending on the charges presented by the prosecution.

Whether you will be charged for a misdemeanor or felony violation is a choice prosecutors make. He/she considers your criminal past and the circumstances of your case before deciding on the preferred charges.

If the property damage value is $400 or more and you are found guilty of misdemeanor violations, a conviction results in:

  • Up to one year in jail
  • Summary probation with the terms mentioned above
  • A maximum fine of $10,000 or up to $50,000 if the value of the damage was $10,000 or more

If the damage value is $400 or more and the jury finds you guilty of a felony violation, a conviction is punishable by:

  • A jail sentence of 16 months, two, or three years
  • Formal probation with up to one year in jail — A judge will issue felony probation terms as an alternative to a jail sentence. Formal probation is issued in felony cases, whereas summary probation punishes misdemeanor offenders. Most of the probation terms are, however, similar.
  • A fine not exceeding $10,000 or $50,000 if the value of the damage was $10,000 or more

Note: If you have at least two prior convictions for vandalism and were either granted probation or incarcerated in at least one of those cases, you must serve a prison or jail sentence issued by the judge in the present case.

Penalties For Graffiti Damage Whose Value is Lesser than $250

Property damage could be valued at $250 or less in certain situations. In other cases, the primary offense is defacing property through graffiti or other inscribed material. If so, the prosecutors could charge you under PC 640.5 or PC 640.6. A conviction would result in less harsh penalties. Alternatively, the prosecution can choose to pursue charges under PC 594.

PC 640.5 and PC 640.6 specifically address property defaced by graffiti or another inscribed material.

The penalties for a conviction under PC 640.5 and PC 640.6 vary depending on whether it is your first, second, third, or subsequent charge.

     a) First Conviction for Graffiti Damage

A first-time conviction for graffiti property damage is an infraction punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 and community service.

     b) Second Conviction for Graffiti Damage

A subsequent PC 640.5 or 640.6 violation following a first conviction for a violation of PC 640.5 or 640.6 is a second violation if the value of the damage remains at $250 or less.

A second charge is a misdemeanor, and a conviction is punishable by:

  • Up to six months in jail
  • A maximum fine of $2,000 and
  • Community service

     c) Third and Subsequent Convictions for Graffiti Damage

A third or subsequent violation of PC 640.5 and PC 640.6 is a misdemeanor offense. The crime is punishable by:

  • Up to one year in jail
  • A fine not exceeding $3,000 and
  • Community service

Penalties for Other Types of Vandalism

Vandalism is not specific to PC 594. For purposes of assigning appropriate punishment, vandalism is described in different laws based on the circumstances of the case. These laws focus on the type of vandalism rather than the value of the damage.

a) Vandalizing Places of Worship, a Violation of PC 594.3

Vandalizing a temple, church, mosque, synagogue, or other areas of worship is an offense under PC 594.3. A conviction could result in misdemeanor or felony penalties.

If convicted on misdemeanor charges, you will:

  • Be sent to jail to serve a term of up to one year, or
  • Serve the summary probation terms mentioned above, and
  • Part with a maximum fine of $1,000

Felony convictions, on the other hand, are punishable by:

  • 16 months, two, or three years behind bars, or
  • Formal probation, and
  • A fine not exceeding $10,000

Any vandalism of places of worship categorized as a hate crime is an automatic felony. These crimes involve vandalism aiming to scare or intimidate victims based on their religious beliefs.

Further, the vandalism of a mortuary or cemetery is a wobbler offense. Though it violates PC 594, the penalties are the same as those outlined above (Penalties under PC 594.3).

b) Vandalism Involving Caustic Chemicals, PC 594.4

When you use butyric acid or other caustic materials or substances, you violate PC 594.4. You will be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony violation, regardless of the value of the damage.

Misdemeanor violations are punishable by up to six months-long jail sentences if convicted. Felonies, on the other hand, attract prison sentences of 16 months, two or three years.

The value of the property damage becomes pivotal in determining the fine penalty for misdemeanor and felony convictions. Fines range from $1,000 to $50,000.

c) Vandalism on or Near Freeways or Highways, a Violation off PC 640.7 and PC 640.8

Violations of PC 640.7 and PC 640.8 are misdemeanor offenses. The crime is punishable by:

  • A jail sentence of six months for first-time offenders convicted of vandalism near a highway
  • Up to one year in jail for second offenders or first-time offenders convicted of vandalism near a freeway
  • A fine not exceeding $1,000 for vandalism on or near a highway, and $5,000 for vandalism on or near a freeway
  • Community service and counseling

Vandalism Cases Involving Juveniles

Juveniles make up a significant portion of the suspects arrested and charged with vandalism. It is important to note that minors are not convicted or sentenced. California’s juvenile system focuses on rehabilitation, not conviction. Thus, PC 594 penalties affected adults. However, it is crucial to address vandalism cases involving juveniles.

It is critical that parents or guardians of minors arrested and charged with vandalism engage a criminal defense attorney. Your attorney will help you navigate the system.

Juveniles involved in vandalism receive probation terms as punishment for their actions. They are meant to remain on probation during a period mandated by the court. The child is expected to comply with the terms issued by the court.

Some of the common conditions juveniles should adhere to include:

  • Paying a fine
  • Community service that includes fixing and painting over the defacement
  • Complying with curfew restrictions
  • Paying restitution to the owner
  • Mandatory attendance at school
  • Not committing any crime during the probation
  • Disassociating with other juveniles or adults involved in the crime
  • Attending counseling — The judge could also require parents or guardians to attend the counseling sessions

A violation of probation terms will result in the judge reinstating the terms or issuing harsher penalties, which could include spending time in juvenile centers instead of serving probation terms at home.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

Reach out to the Darwish Law immediately if you or a loved one has been charged or is under investigation for vandalism in Santa Ana. We will waste no time developing a defense strategy to secure the best legal outcome. Contact our team at 714-887-4810 for a free and confidential case assessment.