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Vandalism laws are designed to prohibit conduct that has the potential to cost states millions of dollars each year in clean-up efforts, and may cause psychological or emotional damage to property owners as well. When a person defaces, alters, or otherwise destroys someone's property, they may be required to clean-up, repair, or replace the damaged property or, more substantially, face criminal penalties in the form of jail time, fines, or both.

Definition of Vandalism

Vandalism is a broad category crime that's used to describe a variety of behaviors. Generally, it includes any willful behavior aimed at destroying, altering, or defacing property belonging to another, which can include:

  • Spray painting another's property with the purpose of defacing;
  • "Egging" someone's car or house;
  • Keying (or scratching) paint off of someone's car;
  • Breaking someone's windows;
  • Defacing public property with graffiti and other forms of "art";
  • Slashing someone's tires;
  • Defacing park benches;
  • Altering or knocking down street signs; and
  • Kicking and damaging someone's property with your hands or feet.

In addition, a person who possesses the means to commit vandalism, such as a drill bit or glass cutter, could also face vandalism charges in some circumstances.

Understanding Vandalism Laws

Vandalism laws exist to prevent the destruction of property and public spaces, and may also exist to protect against hate crimes and other behavior that is directed at religious or minority groups, such as ransacking a church or synagogue, writing racist or sexist graffiti on school property, or etching a swastika in a car.

Criminal property damage is covered by state laws and is usually defined differently by each state. Some states refer to vandalism as "criminal damage", "malicious trespass", "malicious mischief", or other terms. In an effort to control the impact of this crime, many states have specific laws that may decrease certain forms of property damage. For example, some states have local "aerosol container laws" that limit the purchase of spray paint containers or other "vandalism tools" which could be used for defacing property.

In addition, some states have laws that prohibit vandalism to certain types of property, such as cars, churches, school property, and government facilities. Moreover, some state vandalism laws prohibit specific acts, such as breaking windows, graffiti, and using man-made substances to destroy property.

Violation of Vandalism Laws: Penalties and Punishment

Depending on the specific state and value of the property damage, violation of vandalism laws is either a misdemeanor or felony offense. Penalties typically include fines, imprisonment in county jail, or both. In addition, a person convicted of vandalism is frequently ordered to wash, repair or replace the damaged property (known as "restitution"), and/or participate in programs to clean up graffiti and other forms of vandalism. Moreover, a parent of a minor child may be ordered to pay fines resulting from their child's vandal behavior under a "parental liability" theory.

It's also important to realize that while vandalism, on its own, is often considered a non-violent crime, it may be accompanied with other crimes or even escalate to more serious crimes. Crimes they may be related to vandalism include burglary, criminal trespass, or disturbing the peace.

Defenses to Vandalism Charges

Defenses to vandalism charges typically include circumstances that might "mitigate" or lesson the penalties, such as indifference, accident, mischief, or creative expression. Even though vandalism is a crime that generally requires completion of the act, it doesn't require you to get "caught in the act". You may be charged with this crime after the fact if there are witnesses, surveillance, or other evidence that might implicate you.

Learn How Your State's Vandalism Laws Apply to You: Speak with an Attorney

There are definitely talented artists who decorate cities with their art, but doing so on someone else's property without permission is a crime. If you're facing vandalism charges, you should consider contacting a qualified criminal defense attorney near you to discuss your case and to protect your rights.

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Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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