Vandalism Basics

The crime of Vandalism is set forth in § 594 of the California Penal Code. Although Vandalism may seem like a relatively minor criminal offense, in reality it is a very serious criminal charge. The crime of vandalism in California is a “wobbler,” meaning that the District Attorney has the choice to file the case as either a Felony or a Misdemeanor, depending on the facts of your case.

This means that the punishment for vandalism can range anywhere from probation to jail time, or even time in state prison. This is why it is so critical that someone facing a vandalism charge hire a knowledgeable and aggressive attorney.

California Definition of Vandalism

In California, the crime of vandalism is committed when a person “maliciously” damages or destroys property that he does not own, or where he maliciously defaces property that he does not own with graffiti or other inscribed material. (Pen. Code, § 594.)

What the DA Must Prove

To prove that a person committed a vandalism offense, the People must prove that:

  • 1. The person maliciously defaced with graffiti or other inscribed material, or damaged, or destroyed, real or personal property; AND
  • 2. The defendant did not own the property or owned the property with someone else; AND
  • 3. The amount of the damage was either
    • (a) $400 or less in a misdemeanor prosecution; or
    • (b) $400 or more in a felony prosecution.

If the amount is over $400, it is within the discretion of the Prosecution to charge a felony.


**”Maliciously” – “Involving malice; characterized by wicked or mischievous motives or intentions.”

**”Graffiti or other inscribed material”- includes an unauthorized inscription, word, figure, mark, or design that is written, marked, etched, scratched, drawn, or painted on real or personal property.

**”Another person’s property” – can either be (1) “public” property that you neither owned nor had permission to deface, damage or destroy; and (2) can apply to property you own jointly with someone else.

**”Deface” – to mar or spoil the appearance, value, influence, and/or usefulness of and/or to completely destroy something.

Legal Defenses to Vandalism

It is important that anyone facing a vandalism charge in California speak with an attorney about the possible defenses that may apply to their case. Each case is different, and not every defense will apply to a particular case. This is one of the many reasons why it is so important to speak to a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney about your specific case. A few of the potential defenses to a California vandalism charge are listed below:

  • 1. No Intent
    • Defendant lacked the required mental state of malicious to commit vandalism: California Penal code section 594 requires that a person committed the act maliciously. If the action was unintentional, meaning an accident, it serves as a valid legal defense.
  • 2. Ownership of the Property
    • Defendant actually owned the property that was damaged, destroyed or defaced.
  • 3. Consent
    • If the “victim” gave you permission to damage or destroy the property, then you did not commit the crime of vandalism

Punishment for Vandalism in California

Vandalism in California is a “wobbler,” meaning that it can be filed as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the amount of damage. Specifically, California Penal Code section 594 states that vandalism is a misdemeanor unless the amount of damage is $400 or more. If the amount of the damage is $400 or more, then the case is a misdemeanor.

Misdemeanor Punishment

  • Up to one year imprisonment in county jail, OR
  • A maximum fine of $1,000 (or if defendant has a prior vandalism conviction: a maximum fine of $5,000), OR
  • Both fines and imprisonment

Felony Punishment

  • Up to one year imprisonment in state prison or county jail, OR
  • A maximum fine of $10,000 (if damages is $10,000 or more, the fine can increase up to $50,000), OR
  • Both fines and imprisonment

Under the Court’s discretion, it can order the defendant to clean up, repair, or replace the damaged property. If the vandalism consists of defacing property using graffiti, the Court can also order the defendant to keep the damaged property or another specified property in the community free of graffiti for up to one year. Further, the Court can order the defendant to perform community service or graffiti removal and can undergo counseling as well. (Penal Code section 594(c)).

Parental Responsibility

If the defendant is a minor, the parents may be required to pay their fines if the minor is unable to do so.

Collateral Consequences

The Court can suspend the defendant’s Driver’s License up to 2 years. If the defendant has no license at the time, the Court can suspend the issuance of their license, once defendant is eligible, one to three years. (CA Vehicle Code 13202.6)

Immigration Consequences

Anybody charged with a criminal offense who is not a United States Citizen should immediately consult with a criminal defense attorney and/or an immigration attorney about the consequences of a criminal conviction for your specific charges. This is extremely important because a criminal conviction, no matter how minor it may seem, can lead to drastic immigration consequences, such as deportation, denial of naturalization, inadmissibility, etc. Even someone who is here in the United States as a lawful permanent resident (“LPR”) can suffer drastic immigration consequences from a criminal conviction. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime and is not yet a United States citizen, it is vital that you contact an attorney right away.