Criminal Mischief

Understand how the law defines and penalizes criminal or malicious mischief.

By | Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney

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.

What Is Criminal Mischief?

The crime of criminal mischief occurs whenever someone intentionally damages someone else's property without their consent. The amount of damage can be minor or significant—it's the unlawful act of damaging property that is key to this crime.

Proving Criminal Mischief Charges

To secure a conviction for criminal or malicious mischief, the prosecutor must prove the defendant (1) intentionally or recklessly damaged (2) another's property (3) without consent.

Intentional or Reckless 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 act is not criminal mischief.

In some situations, though, you can commit criminal mischief if you act recklessly. Reckless acts are not accidental acts—they're committed with a conscious disregard for the likely consequences. Take the baseball scenario above, but say you decide to start hitting baseballs at your neighbor's home and one of them breaks a window. This act is 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.

Other reckless acts that would likely substantiate a charge of criminal mischief include using explosives, fire, or other potentially dangerous items or methods without regard to the probable outcome and damaging property as a result.

Another's Property

It's not generally a crime to damage your own property. The issue of property ownership, though, may come up when the property is leased, rented, or jointly owned. In many states, a defendant commits criminal mischief by damaging property that the defendant and another person have an interest in. Say an angry spouse smashes all the windows of the married couple's vehicle. This scenario could result in criminal mischief charges if the co-owner/spouse didn't consent to the damage.

Without Consent

The prosecutor must also prove the defendant damaged the property without consent. Consent sometimes becomes an issue when court orders are involved, such as a court order to tow an illegally parked vehicle. Or a defendant claims the property owner consented to an act that led to the damage, such as tearing down their dilapidated fence.

What Are Examples of Criminal or Malicious Mischief?

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. Other examples of criminal or malicious mischief include intentionally stomping on or throwing someone's cellphone to break it, hitting a car door with a bat, or driving through someone's yard to destroy the lawn and landscaping.

Defenses to Criminal Mischief

A defendant charged with criminal mischief might raise one of several defenses, including "It wasn't me." The defense might also try to poke holes in the prosecution's case, for instance, by arguing the act was accidental (not intentional). In some cases, a defendant might argue their act was justified—say the person broke a car window to rescue an animal that appeared to be in distress and overheated in a locked, unattended vehicle.

How Is Criminal Mischief Punished?

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.

Misdemeanor Criminal Mischief

The lowest degree of criminal mischief usually involves only slight amounts of damage, such as up to a few hundred dollars worth. In some states, this damage threshold might be closer to $1,000. Misdemeanor penalties generally carry potential jail sentences of 3, 6, or 12 months' jail time and fines in the range of $200 to $2,000. A judge might order a first-time offender to pay a fine and restitution (see below) without requiring any jail time.

Felony Criminal Mischief

Once the amount of damage surpasses the misdemeanor amount (or threshold), the crime becomes a felony. Felony penalties might also apply when:

  • the person has prior convictions for criminal mischief or other property damage crimes
  • the damage involved public utilities or public services, or
  • the crime put someone at risk of physical harm.

A person convicted of a felony typically faces prison time of a year or more. For criminal mischief, these felony penalties may range from one to five years' prison time and fines of $5,000 or higher. However, much stiffer penalties could apply if the crime created a serious risk of bodily harm to another or public harm (such as damaging an electric transformer).

Restitution

Judges will often award restitution for crimes involving property damage. A restitution award goes to the crime victim to pay to replace or fix the damaged property. In some cases, especially graffiti cases, the judge may direct the defendant to personally clean up or repair the damage.

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 your life for years to come. Speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area if you're facing charges or an investigation for criminal mischief.

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