Vandalism covers a broad variety of unlawful acts relating to destruction or defacement of property—both public and private. State laws and local ordinances that prohibit vandalism may also use the terms graffiti, criminal or malicious mischief, or damage to property to describe the offense.
Generally, vandalism is defined as an intentional act that defaces, mars, destroys, alters, or otherwise damages another’s property without that person’s permission. Examples of vandalism include:
- spray painting another’s property (examples include vehicles, houses, train cars, and bridges)
- keying (or scratching) a vehicle’s paint
- knocking over a mailbox or sign
- carving initials or drawings into a wood bench, siding, or railing, and
- breaking windows.
The effects of vandalism often can be seen in public places like bus stops, bridges, and tunnels. In such cases, vandalism is considered a “quality of life” crime; the theory is that it undermines the community’s sense of safety and well-being. When vandalism is directed at a particular group, religion, or affiliation it might be labeled a bias or hate crime. So it should be no surprise that law enforcement authorities and communities take vandalism seriously.
Penalties for vandalism vary by state and municipality. Like other property damage crimes, the penalty usually depends on the amount of damage done and the repair costs. If the damage is minimal, the offense will likely be punished as a misdemeanor. However, an offense that involves significant damage or is motivated by hate or bias could be charged as a felony. (Read about the differences between misdemeanors and felonies.)
In vandalism cases, judges often order restitution to the property owner. Restitution usually involves paying for repair costs, but in vandalism cases, the judge may also order the defendant to actually do the cleanup or repairs. If the offense was committed by a juvenile, the case will typically go through juvenile court. A juvenile court judge may order the child, as well as the parents, to pay for repairs or clean up the property.
To learn more about property damage laws and punishments in your state, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney.