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Criminal mischief has likely been around for as long as people have owned personal property. Any time a person damages someone else's property without the owner's permission, that's criminal mischief. Criminal mischief is also known as malicious mischief, vandalism, damage to property, or by other names depending on the state.
Damage But Not Possession
The crime of criminal mischief occurs whenever someone damages someone else's property. The amount of damage can be minor or significant, but it's the damaging of the property that is the key issue in the crime. Criminal mischief does not involve taking another's property, only breaking, defacing, or otherwise damaging it without the owner's permission.
Intent to Act
You can't accidentally commit criminal mischief. The law requires that you damage the property intentionally and not simply accidentally. For example, if you're playing baseball and accidentally hit the ball through your neighbor's window, this is not criminal mischief. On the other hand, if you decide to start hitting baseballs at your neighbor's home and one of them happens to go through the window causing damage, that's a crime. It doesn't matter if you specifically intended to break the window or intended to cause any kind of physical damage. All that matters is that you intended to take actions you knew (or should have known) might reasonably result in property damage.
Types of Damage
Criminal mischief encompasses a range of different activities, from painting graffiti on a wall, to tampering with a fire hose or emergency exit, or removing a survey or boundary marker. In some states, criminal mischief also encompasses actions such as setting off a smoke bomb or other device to cause public alarm, or even interfering with someone's use of the computer by introducing a virus or otherwise damaging computer components.
In some situations you can commit criminal mischief you act recklessly. Reckless acts are not accidental acts; they're committed with a conscious disregard for the likely consequences. For example, using explosives, fire, or other potentially dangerous items or methods without regard to the probable outcome, and damaging property as a result, would substantiate a charge of criminal mischief.
Degrees of Damage
Many states differentiate between different degrees of criminal mischief based on either the amount of damage done or whether specific property or specific elements are involved. For example, the lowest degree of criminal mischief usually involves only slight amounts of damage, such as up to a few hundred dollars' worth. More significant damage raises the crime to a higher degree. The more significant the degree, the harsher the potential penalty. Also, higher degrees often apply when the person has committed prior acts of mischief before, if the damage involved public utilities or public services, or if the crime put someone at risk of physical harm.
Criminal mischief crimes are charged as either misdemeanor or felony offenses. Misdemeanor crimes are less serious than felony crimes, with felonies having potential sentences of a year or more in prison, while misdemeanors are punished with potential penalties of up to a year in jail.
- Jail or prison. If you commit criminal mischief, you may be sentenced to a period of incarceration in either a local jail or state prison. If the mischief results in a relatively small amount of damage, such as a few hundred dollars or less, the potential jail sentence is usually very small, typically up to 30 or 60 days. Felony sentences, especially in cases where someone else was put at risk, can bring five years or more in prison.
- Fines. Fines are a very common penalty for criminal mischief. First-time offenders are often sentenced to pay a fine and do not have to serve any jail or prison time. Misdemeanor fines often range between a few hundred dollars up to about $1,000. Felony fines, on the other hand, are typically much more significant. Fine of $5,000, $10,000, or even higher are possible, especially in cases involving significant property damage or where people were placed at risk.
- Probation. Probation is a possible sentence in criminal mischief cases in addition to, or as an alternative to, fines and incarceration. When a court orders you to serve probation, you must meet specific terms. These terms often include, for example, not committing more crimes, meeting regularly with a probation officer, not associating with known criminals, paying all fines and restitution, and finding or maintaining employment.
- Restitution. When a crime involves damage to property, courts usually make restitution a part of the sentence. Restitution pays the property owner for the damage caused. While a court may order you to pay fines, those fines get paid to the state. Restitution, on the other hand, is paid to the property owner.
Talk to a Lawyer
Criminal mischief charges can seem minor, especially if they don't involve a significant amount of damage or if you have never been charged with a crime before. However, even a misdemeanor conviction can seriously impact the rest of your life. You always need to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area whenever you are charged with, or investigated for, any criminal mischief crime. Only a local attorney who knows your state's laws and who has experience working with area judges and prosecutors can give you legal advice about your case. You need to speak to a criminal lawyer as soon as possible if you are charged with criminal mischief.