The term "vandalism" describes conduct that defaces or damages public or private property. State laws and local ordinances that prohibit vandalism might reference terms such as graffiti or criminal or malicious mischief.
What Is Vandalism?
Vandalism is the willful destruction or damaging of property in a manner that defaces, mars, or otherwise adds a physical blemish that diminishes the property's value. For example, if you put bumper stickers on a person's car or spray-paint your name on someone's fence, this is vandalism. Vandalism can also cover such offenses as:
- carving your initials into public park trees or public benches
- writing your name on a store window with a marker
- “keying” a car or puncturing its tires
- breaking a building's windows, and
- knocking over grave markers.
While vandalism involves damaging property, it is not always the same as the crime of “destruction of property” or “damage to property.” These crimes can cover more serious physical damage, though some states use these categories to also cover acts of vandalism. In other words, what is vandalism in one state may be destruction of property in another.
Vandalism, like every crime, is made up of different parts, known as elements. To be convicted of vandalism, the prosecutor must prove that you have committed each of these elements. Let's look at the different elements of vandalism.
- Physical damage. Vandalism covers such acts as graffiti, “tagging,” carving, etching, and other forms of damage that, though often permanent, are not so serious that they destroy the property or prevent it from functioning properly. Placing stickers, posters, signs, or other markers on property can also constitute physical damage.
- Owned by someone else. The property you damage must be owned or possessed by someone else, and you must damage it against the owner's wishes. You cannot, for example, commit vandalism by covering your own fence in graffiti or by adding bumper stickers to a car after receiving permission from the owner.
- Intentionally. You cannot accidentally commit vandalism. For example, if you're painting your house and accidentally spill some paint on your neighbor's fence, you have not vandalized the property. (However, you’d still be legally obligated to pay for repairs to the fence.) To commit the crime of vandalism, you must damage the property on purpose.
Penalties for Vandalism
In general, vandalism is not a serious crime unless the property destroyed is worth a lot of money. Many acts of vandalism are misdemeanors, meaning the maximum penalties include fines and up to a year in the local jail. However, vandalism that results in serious damage to valuable property is a felony. Defendants charged with a felony can face more than a year in state prison and significant fines.
Many states categorize damage to property worth less than $1,000 as a misdemeanor, while anything worth $1,000 or more is a felony. This amount can differ among states or depending on the type of property. For example, some states set a $500 limit to misdemeanors but consider any damage to a motor vehicle a felony.
Each state has its own set of penalties that cover vandalism. Here are the most commonly encountered punishments.
- Jail. A jail sentence for vandalism can range from a few days in jail to several years in prison, depending on the amount of damage done. If you have a previous conviction for vandalism or have a criminal record for any other offenses, you may face increased jail penalties.
- Fines. Fines for vandalism differ widely by state as well, ranging from several hundred dollars to up to $25,000 or more for the most serious offenses. You pay these fines directly to the court and not to the property owner.
- Restitution. Restitution is the money you pay the property owner for the damage you caused. The money is in addition to the fine you have to pay, and you usually have to pay enough so the owner can repair or replace the damaged property.
- Probation. A court can also sentence you to probation instead of, or in addition to, your jail sentence and fines. For example, a court may sentence a first-time offender who commits misdemeanor vandalism to probation instead of jail time. If you violate any of the rules or conditions that come with probation (such as a requirement that you perform “community service," explained below), the court may order you to serve the original jail sentence.
- Community service. A court can also require you to perform community service as part of your punishment. This means that you must spend a specific number of hours serving a volunteer organization or other recognized community service program as a condition of your probation. If you fail to do the community service, you will face the original fines and jail sentence.
See a Lawyer
If you’ve been charged with the crime of vandalism, consider consulting with a criminal defense attorney who regularly practices in your area. An experienced lawyer will be able to evaluate the strength of the prosecution’s evidence against you, explain your options and the likely consequences for each, and protect your rights. Only a local lawyer who knows how cases like yours are normally handled by the prosecutors and judges in your courthouse will be able to give you practical and realistic advice.