Vandalism is an offense under California Penal Code 594 that involves defacing or damaging someone else's or a government's property. The penalties and charges imposed on an offender will vary depending on the amount of damage done to the alleged property. If the property is worth more than $400, you will be charged with a misdemeanor. Any damages over $400 will likely result in felony charges.

If you or your loved one has been charged with vandalism charges, it's crucial that you fully understand every aspect of those charges. Our seasoned vandalism attorneys at the Chula Vista Criminal Attorney can assist you in navigating the intricate legal system, protecting your rights at every step of the court process. 

Vandalism Under California Law

When most people think about vandalism, images of young adults breaking windows and cars, egging people's houses, and spraying graffiti on walls come to mind. Other vandalism violations include damaging people's properties when fighting, keying people's cars, and writing on someone else's wet cement.

This list of acts that can lead to vandalism accusations is not all-inclusive. An act can be vandalism provided it meets the criteria set forth under California PEN 594. Additionally, young people aren't the only people that engage in acts of vandalism. Vandalism is a crime that can be filed against and prosecuted against adults as well.

The three elements that constitute the PEN 594 description of vandalism are what the prosecution must show to succeed in convicting you. These elements include:

  • You intentionally sprayed graffiti or left an inscription on other people's property, or you damaged or destroyed their belongings.
  • The property was not yours, and it belonged to someone else.
  • The destruction, damage, or defacement of property worth more or less than 400 dollars.

We'll go through each element in more detail below.

Damaging Property with Graffiti or Any Other Inscribed Material

In this context, "graffiti" or an "inscribed material" can refer to any unauthorized figures, words, designs, or inscriptions that are written, marked, etched, scratched, drawn, or painted without permission on private or public property.

It makes no difference whether the damage is permanent or not, whether it was done with graffiti, an inscription, or the equipment used to do it.

Personal property is anything that belongs to a specific person, such as their vehicles, homes, furniture, or any other things that they own. Additionally, real estate consists of both land and structures.

Property You Didn't Own or That Belonged to Someone Else

At first glance, this element looks obvious. But there are further considerations: jointly owned and public property.

Any act of vandalism on public property occurs when someone defaces, destroys, or causes damage to property that belongs to the federal government or one of its agencies, such as a school, a park bench, a sidewalk, or a traffic sign. Legally, the jury can presume that the property was not yours.

When deface, damage, or destroy property that you co-own with someone else, you could be charged with vandalism and prosecuted accordingly. For example, if a wife damages, destroys, or defaces property that she and her husband own jointly, then she will be charged with vandalism.


Malicious behavior is defined as the execution of an unlawful act with a particular intent to harm or annoy someone else. However, this does not prove that you have the intent to violate the law. This means that you will not be convicted of vandalism when the act of defacing, destroying, or damaging someone else's property occurred as an accident.

The Magnitude of the Damage

The property damage threshold under California PEN 594 is $400. If the damage is below $400, you will be charged with a misdemeanor. The criminal act is charged as a wobbler offense if the total cost is more than $400. In other words, you'll either be charged with a felony or a misdemeanor. The monetary value of the damaged property will determine the severity of the consequences you face if found guilty.

If more than one act of vandalism were committed as part of a single plot or intent, prosecutors will file one vandalism case against you. The value element is still relevant. Consequently, you will be charged with a misdemeanor offense if the total amount of damage is under $400. You'll be charged with a felony if the value is greater than $400.

The prosecution will bring separate vandalism charges for vandalism committed in separate actions that aren't linked by a common goal or intent. It is important to remember that being accused of a felony doesn't automatically result in a conviction.

The burden of proof lies with the prosecution to show that the destruction or damage cost more than $400. If you are found guilty and the jury finds the worth to be under $400, you'll be subject to misdemeanor charges.

If you deface, destroy, or damage a vehicle in California, you will face charges under California Vehicle Code section 10853. You will be prosecuted with a misdemeanor offense, which carries a maximum jail term of 6 months and a maximum fine of $1,000.

Penalties For California Vandalism Charges

California PEN 594 provides penalties for vandalism based on the specifics of the situation at hand. The following factors determine the penalties:

  • The extent of the damages caused.
  • Any previous vandalism convictions.
  • The property that was vandalized.

Penalties for Misdemeanor Charges

The following legal penalties await you when the jury convicts you of damaging property that caused damages worth no more than $400:

  • A maximum of one year in jail.
  • A fine of no more than one thousand dollars, or five thousand dollars if you've been convicted of vandalism before.
  • Informal or summary probation instead of incarceration.

The presiding judge will place the following terms and conditions on your probationary term:

  • Mandatory counseling.
  • Community service.
  • Your driving privileges will be suspended for a minimum of two years, and you will have to wait between one and three years before being eligible to get a license if you don't already have one.
  • You’ll be assigned the duty of preventing graffiti on the damaged property for a minimum of a year.

Penalties For Felony Charges

Vandalism is charged as a wobbler offense if the destruction caused is worth $400 or higher. This implies that the prosecutors will evaluate your case as well as any prior criminal record to determine whether they will charge you with a felony or a misdemeanor offense.

If you are found guilty of a misdemeanor under PEN 594 and the value of the damages is no less than $400, the penalties imposed could be as follows:

  • A maximum of one year in jail.
  • If the damages are worth $10,000 or maybe more, maximum fines of between $10,000 and $50,000, or both, could be imposed.
  • Formal or felony probation with comparable restrictions as the misdemeanor probation (as described above).

If you're found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of malicious mischief as per PEN 595 and the value of the damages is not less than $400, you could be subject to the following punishments:

  • Formal probation as well as a one-year maximum jail sentence.
  • 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years behind bars.
  • Maximum fines of ten thousand dollars, fifty thousand dollars, or both when the value of the damage is worth no less than $10,000.

The term "malicious mischief" describes when someone damages, destroys, or defaces property without the consent of the owner. It is important to note that when you have already been convicted of vandalism no less than twice before, you will be required to serve time in prison or jail for any subsequent convictions.

Graffiti Causing Property Damage Valued at $250 or Less

Prosecutors seek PEN 640.5 and 640.6 charges in cases when the damage caused is below $250. Whether the current vandalism accusation is your first offense, a subsequent or second offense, or a violation of either of the two provisions will determine the penalty. Furthermore, these laws only apply to vandalism caused by graffiti of less than $250.

First Offense

If you are being charged with vandalism for the initial offense and the repair costs are under $250, your violation is charged as an infraction. Offenders who commit infractions face the following sanctions:

  • A $1,000 maximum fine.
  • Community service.

Second Offense

If the costs of the repairs surpass $250 while you have previously been convicted of vandalism, your present offense is charged as a misdemeanor. However, the punishments you will face are less severe than those under PEN 594. The following are among the misdemeanor penalties imposed under PEN 640.5 and 640.6:

  • A maximum jail term of 6 months.
  • Community service.
  • Fines of up to $2,000.

Third and Subsequent Offenses

If you have been convicted of vandalism under PEN 640.5 or 640.6 and have at least two previous convictions, you will face misdemeanor penalties, including:

  • A maximum jail term of a year.
  • Community service.
  • Maximum monetary fines of up to $3,000.

Penalties for Other Forms of Vandalism

Vandalism is covered under California PEN 594. However, several other laws cover vandalism in certain cases. In other words, they pay attention to the nature of the vandalism rather than the cost of the damages. The laws also describe the various punishments a defendant can experience if found guilty.

Vandalism in Religious Places

Under PEN 594.3, vandalism of churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and other locations utilized for religious education or worship is unlawful.

Misdemeanor violations carry the following penalties:

  • A maximum jail sentence of a year.
  • Fines of not more than $1,000.
  • Misdemeanor probation with conditions comparable to those listed above.

Felony violations bear the following charges:

  • A 16-month, 2-year, or 3-year prison term.
  • Fines of not more than $10,000.
  • Felony probation with comparable terms as those mentioned above.

If the prosecutor establishes that you committed a hate crime by vandalizing a place of worship with the intent to terrorize or harass the victims due to their religious views, you will face felony charges. In addition, the likelihood of facing criminal charges increases if one is convicted of causing damage to a mortuary or burial site.

Vandalism Using Caustic Chemicals

Use of caustic substances, chemicals, or other comparable harmful chemicals is a violation of PEN 594.3 and is punishable by a felony or a misdemeanor.

Misdemeanor convictions carry the following penalties:

  • A maximum jail term of 6 months.
  • Maximum fines from $1,000 to $50,000 based on how much damage was done.
  • Summary probation.

Felony convictions have the following penalties:

  • A 16-month, 2-year, or 3-year prison sentence.
  • Maximum fines of $1,000 to $50,000, based on how much damage was done.
  • Felony probation.

Vandalism Near or On a Highway or Freeway

According to PEN 640.7 and PEN 640.8, vandalizing property that is on or close to highways or freeways is a criminal offense. The following are misdemeanor penalties that can be applied for a violation of these laws:

  • For the initial offense of vandalism near or on a highway, the maximum sentence is a six-month jail term, and for repeat offenders, the penalty is a one-year maximum jail sentence.
  • If you damage property close to a highway, you'll be fined up to $1,000; if you damage property near or on a freeway, you'll be penalized with fines of up to $5,000.
  • Counseling or community service.

Possible Defenses For Vandalism Charges

To put together an effective legal defense strategy, you should consult with a seasoned vandalism attorney. He or she will evaluate your case and choose the best line of defense to take. Here are a few examples of defenses you can use for your case:

You Were Wrongfully Arrested

In certain cases, actual perpetrators pose as a witness to lead authorities astray. The perpetrators could even give fake testimony. This often happens when a member of the group vandalizes the property of another and persuades the others to identify an innocent person as the offender.

If this happens to you, your lawyer will launch a separate investigation to determine what happened. Some witnesses may have seen the actual offender. Furthermore, proving you had a valid alibi when the incident occurred will help to prove you weren't the one who did it.

Additionally, to raise doubts about the credibility of a prosecutor's witness testimony, your counsel may demonstrate to the jurors that the witness has a history of lying. The goal of all these defenses is to cast doubt on the prosecutor's case.

The Act Was an Accident

Acts of vandalism do cause property damage. Nevertheless, the state's desire for a guilty verdict to penalize you and dissuade others from acting similarly doesn't provide them the right to claim that you acted maliciously. The burden of demonstrating malice in what you allegedly did rests with the state.

Accidents should still be treated as accidents even if they cause losses. Your lawyer will say that you had a momentary slip of judgment or that the act was accidental. This means that you didn't break any vandalism statutes.

Mistaken Identity

You could have been wrongly identified by witnesses during the investigation. You meet the overall description provided by the eyewitnesses and law enforcement officers may have responded based on that information. In other cases, you might have had contact with others responsible for the damaged or vandalized property even though you didn't personally cause the damage, destruction, or defacement.

If your counsel finds strong evidence that supports this defense, you could contend that you have been misidentified as the offender.

False Accusations

Vandalism cases often involve false accusations. These occurrences are common in domestic abuse cases that lead to property vandalism. A defendant may be falsely accused of vandalism by an ex-lover seeking revenge. It's also possible that the claim may have been made out of spite or envy.

If you have been wrongfully accused of perpetrating vandalism, your lawyer could use this argument to refute the accusations.

Getting Your Vandalism Conviction Expunged

Only those who were convicted of misdemeanor vandalism and who have completed their probation are eligible to have their convictions expunged. But if you are facing probation violation charges, the court could rule against your expungement petition.

If the defendant adheres to the rules and regulations during the first or second year of probation, the judge would grant them early termination of probation.

If you were found guilty of a felony vandalism charge, the judge can lower the charge to a misdemeanor offense. Your attorney can request a reduction by submitting a Penal Code 17(b) petition. A judge is only going to approve this petition if the charges were prosecuted as wobblers. This motion can be submitted by your defense counsel at any phase mentioned below:

  • After the initial hearing.
  • At the sentencing.
  • When you have completed your felony probation.

What are the Advantages of a Record Expungement?

People often question whether they need to have their records expunged. The advantages of expungement include:

  • When someone performs a criminal record check, your felony charge won't show up in the results, even if it has been lowered to a misdemeanor offense. As a result, finding a job, financing, or housing will become easier for you.
  • Your rights under the second amendment will be reinstated.
  • You can acquire a license to practice your profession.
  • You have the right to participate in a jury.

Additional Offenses that the Prosecution Could Bring Against You

Prosecutors have the option of charging you with vandalism or one of several related charges. The following are possible charges they can pursue:

  • Trespassing under California PEN 602.
  • Damaging a telephone or power supply Under California PEN 591.


PEN 602 prohibits any deliberate entry into someone else's property without authorization from its owner or legal right. Below are examples of conduct that could constitute trespassing. This list is not exhaustive.

  • Entering another person's property with the intent to harm or destroy their belongings.
  • Entering and staying on someone else's property.
  • Entering a person's property with the intent to disrupt or tamper with any business operations taking place there.
  • Refusing to leave someone's property after they have asked you to.
  • Taking soil, dirt, or stones without consent from someone's property.
  • Refusing to be screened at an airport or courthouse.

Trespassing leads to an infraction, felony, and misdemeanor penalties based on the specifics of the case. For the first offense, an infraction carries a $75 fine; for the second violation perpetrated on the same property, it carries a $250 fine. The prosecution must demonstrate that you purposefully entered another person's property without their consent and that the property was either fenced in or displayed no-trespassing signs. Misdemeanors carry a maximum jail sentence of 6 months and a $1,000 fine.

PEN 601 deals with aggravated or felony trespass. Trespassing is charged as a felony when:

  • You give threats to harm someone else, making the victim worry for their life.
  • After issuing the threat, you show up at the residence or business within 30 days.

Aggravated trespass is charged as a wobbler. You might spend up to one year behind bars and pay a fine of two thousand dollars if you're found guilty of a misdemeanor. A felony conviction carries a fine of ten thousand dollars and a potential jail sentence of 3 years.

Damaging a Telephone or Electric Line

If you intentionally disconnect, remove, block, cut, or destroy a power, telephone, or cable line, you'll be charged under Penal Code 591. The prosecution must prove the following elements:

  • You illegally cut, cut off, disconnected, or otherwise tampered with a telegraph, cable, telephone, or power line.
  • The act was done maliciously.

A conviction for a misdemeanor carries a maximum one-year jail term or a summary probation term. If found guilty of a felony offense, you might spend a maximum of 3 years in jail or be placed on formal probation.

Find a Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me

A seasoned attorney can be of great assistance. Early interventions before your trial could lead to lighter sentences or charges being dropped. However, if the case goes to trial, your counsel will raise any of the aforementioned defenses to challenge the prosecutor's case to help you obtain a favorable outcome. We at the Chula Vista Criminal Attorney can look into the details of your case and then apply our knowledge to help you fight the charges. Call us today at 619-877-6894  to schedule a consultation.