What Is Criminal Mischief?

Young boys smoking

Various laws exist in several jurisdictions to protect lives and property, establish order, or punish criminals. This article covers a segment of the law that exists to protect property and punish transgressions of other people’s rights.

Criminal mischief is a subsection of malicious damage. So, the next time you are angry or upset and feel the urge to express yourself by taking it out on another person’s property, you should remember that such acts can land you in jail.


What is Criminal Mischief?

Criminal mischief, often known as vandalism, is the deliberate and malicious destruction of another person’s tangible property. This means that when you damage another person’s property with intent, you’ll be charged criminally with this offense.

Everything that can be touched or interacted with directly is considered tangible property. A signboard, for instance, would be regarded as tangible property because it is a physical object. However, the sign’s words are abstract, especially the concepts they represent.

You won’t be altering the property’s physical characteristics if you put up your signboard with the same wording. But drawing a big ‘X’ across another person’s signboard would change the concept. The law does not apply to slogans, ideas, or other intangibles because they are not concrete.

Depending on the extent of the damage, it may be punished as a misdemeanor or a felony, which entails jail or prison time. This indicates that you may face charges if you engage in any behavior that adversely affects another person’s property without their consent.

Under the applicable case laws, injury or damage to personal property can include acts of graffiti, sabotage, defacement, breakage, cutting a hole through a fence, or putting political posters on a wall without permission. These are all examples of criminal mischief. There are many other situations that fall under criminal mischief so you should seek the advice of a criminal defense attorney if you’re not sure whether your activities fall under mischief.


Key Elements Of A Criminal Mischief Charge

A broken window.

The prosecution must prove certain elements beyond all reasonable doubt before the defendant can be convicted under a criminal mischief charge.


— Damage To Property

Criminal mischief must include property damage; otherwise, the prosecutor must drop the charge. The proof of damage must be wholesome and incontestable, meaning that a claim of damage to property that’s been damaged previously will be insufficient to support a conviction for criminal mischief.

The defendant’s intentional and malicious actions must have been directed at the owner’s property, not the person. So, if the malicious act is towards a person and their property is damaged accidentally, there will be no criminal mischief conviction. But this isn’t necessarily good news, as if you hit another person, you will most likely be charged with assault instead.

Proof of damage to tangible property may also require proof of financial loss. This must be based on competent evidence and not mere hearsay. The court applied this in the Florida state case of S.P. v. State.

The amount of financial loss (i.e., the value of the damaged property), also determines whether the offense will be regarded as a misdemeanor or a felony.


— Damaged Property Belonged To The Victim

There must be sufficient proof that the damaged property belonged to the victim. The amount of damage is unimportant; the main point is that the damaged property belonged to the victim..

Criminal mischief does not include taking someone else’s property. Rather, it solely involves smashing, defacing, harming, or damaging it without the owner’s consent.

In Texas, for example, if many pieces of property were harmed continuously, each item of property damage or cost could be totaled. This means that if the same person or group of people harmed three different properties independently, the court would add up the costs.


— Damage Occurred Willfully & Maliciously

You cannot unintentionally cause criminal damage. You must intentionally harm the property to be guilty of this offense. For instance, it is not criminal mischief if you accidentally hit a ball through your neighbor’s window during a baseball game. However, it is illegal if you start throwing baseballs at your neighbor’s house and one of them breaks a window.

So, if you acted with knowledge or intent, it means that you set out to inflict harm, despite the consequences. Malicious intent cannot happen by accident. The entire outcome of the case may depend on your ability to demonstrate what you intended to do.


Misdemeanor vs. Felony Criminal Mischief Charges

Criminal mischief offenses can be classified as felonies or misdemeanor offenses. The main difference between these is that crimes classified as misdemeanors are less serious than felonies. While misdemeanors can result in up to one year in jail, felonies can result in more than one year in prison. There are Class A, B, and C misdemeanors, which are dependent on the amount of property damaged and the state in which the offense occurred.

In Texas, any property destruction or tampering resulting in less than $1,500 in damages is considered a misdemeanor. Damages over $1,500 are felonies. However, there are some situations where a low-damage act of less than $1,500 becomes a felony.

For instance, in criminal mischief, first-degree offenses against a place of worship or a fence that confines livestock may still be a felony charge, even if the cost of the damage is less than $1,500.

In Florida, if the property damage is $200 or less, the offender has committed a second-degree misdemeanor with a maximum jail sentence of 60 days. It is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail, when the property damage exceeds $200 but is less than $1,000. When the cost of the property damage reaches $1,000, the crime is classified as a third-degree felony, carrying a maximum 5-year jail sentence.

In California, when the damage is less than $400, criminal mischief is considered a misdemeanor, with maximum penalties of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. However, depending on the prosecutor’s judgment, if the damage exceeds $400, the offense may be charged as a felony. The penalty for felony vandalism is up to $50,000 in fines and one to three years in prison.


Defenses To A Criminal Mischief Charge

A gavel on a judge's desk.

Here are a few popular ways to defend against a criminal mischief charge:


  • The damage was not a result of the accused’s conduct
  • The victim does not own the property, or the property is jointly owned or possessed by the accused and the victim
  • The act that caused the damage was not willful or malicious
  • The victim’s conduct caused the property damage
  • The damage was done with the consent of the owner
  • The accused had some form of impairment while causing the damage
  • The conduct of the accused was necessary to protect themselves or others
  • Some other circumstances in the case support an argument that the accused’s conduct was not “wrongful”

These defenses do not apply to every situation. Therefore, disclosing all necessary information to your criminal defense lawyer is important. This will help build your attorney-client relationship so you can get good legal advice and a great defense.


Penalties For A Criminal Mischief Conviction

The following are common penalties for a criminal mischief conviction:


— Jail Or Prison

You may be sentenced to either a local jail or state prison if you are convicted of criminal mischief. The potential jail sentence is usually minor if the mischief results in a relatively small amount of damage. This may be 30-60 days, a penalty for a misdemeanor. Felony sentences can lead to five years or more in prison.


— Fines

Monetary fines are a common punishment for criminal mischief. First-time offenders usually only receive a fine and no jail or prison term. Misdemeanor fines range from a few hundred dollars to roughly $1,000. On the other hand, felony fines are often much more substantial. It is possible to be fined $5,000, $10,000, or even more where there has been considerable property damage.


— Probation

In criminal mischief cases, the court may impose probation instead of, or in addition to, fines and incarceration. You must adhere to strict conditions if the court grants you probation. These conditions frequently include refraining from committing other crimes, attending regular probation meetings, avoiding contact with known offenders, paying all penalties and restitution, and obtaining or maintaining employment.


— Restitution

Restitution compensates the owner of the property for the harm done. Although a court may mandate fines, the state receives the money from those fines. Restitution is paid to the property owner.

The specifics of the penalties for a criminal mischief conviction may vary between states. The penalties also vary based on the amount of damage caused to the owner’s property, which is also a determining factor in whether it will be classified as a misdemeanor or a felony.


The Bottom Line

Damaging the property of another person without their consent is a criminal offense. Even though many people don’t consider vandalism a serious crime, the consequences can be severe. If you have been charged with criminal mischief, you should immediately call a criminal defense attorney for legal advice. Also, you should utilize your right to remain silent while in police custody. Your lawyer may also be able to help you get bail.


Frequently Asked Questions


What are acts of mischief?

Acts of mischief are broad. Generally, they constitute acts that cause harm to the personal property of another individual without their consent.

Under the statutes and applicable case laws, acts of criminal mischief can include acts of graffiti, sabotage, defacement, breakage, “getting free cable” by running an unauthorized cord to a cable box, cutting a hole through a fence, or even posting a political poster on a wall without permission.


Is criminal mischief a felony?

Criminal mischief can either be classified as a felony or a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors are less serious criminal offenses compared to felonies.

Therefore, subject to the judge’s decision and the case’s circumstances, an offense categorized as a misdemeanor attracts less punishment in terms of jail time, fines, and probation. On the flip side, an offense categorized as a felony attracts a heavier punishment of jail time, fines, restitution, and lengthier probation.


Are there both civil and criminal penalties for criminal mischief?

Criminal mischief is a criminal offense and thus attracts criminal penalties. It is not the same as the tort of mischief, which attracts civil liability. The tort of mischief occurs when the victim suffers personal injuries based on recklessness or negligence.

The criminal mischief offense occurs when someone executes a malicious and willful act to cause deliberate harm to another person’s property.