Penal Code 594 PC | Vandalism

Penal Code 594 PC – Vandalism in California

Vandalism laws in California make it illegal to deface, damage, or destroy someone else’s property without permission. Penal Code 594 PC is the state’s main vandalism law. It defines vandalism as maliciously damaging or destroying property, including:

  • Defacing with graffiti or other inscribed material
  • Damaging
  • Destroying

Vandalism can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony in California, depending on the facts of the case. Misdemeanor vandalism is punishable by up to 1 year in county jail. Felony vandalism carries up to 3 years in state prison.

This article explains:

  • The legal definition of vandalism under California law
  • Penalties for misdemeanor and felony vandalism
  • Legal defenses that apply
  • Related offenses, like malicious mischief (Penal Code 594(b)(2))

Legal Definition of Vandalism in California

California’s vandalism law Penal Code 594 PC states that:

Every person who maliciously commits any of the following acts with respect to any real or personal property not his or her own, in cases other than those specified by state law, is guilty of vandalism:

(1) Defaces with graffiti or other inscribed material.

(2) Damages.

(3) Destroys.

“Maliciously” means the person acted willfully or on purpose. There is no requirement to show evil intent or a motive of revenge or cruelty.

Defacing with Graffiti

“Graffiti or other inscribed material” refers to unauthorized writings, drawings, markings, or etchings on real or personal property. This includes things like:

  • Spray-painting gang tags or artwork on buildings
  • Scratching words or images into cars or benches
  • Etching initials into wet cement

The defacement does not necessarily have to be permanent to qualify as vandalism. Non-permanent markers on glass bus stop shelters, for example, could still lead to vandalism charges.

Damaging Property

Damaging property under California’s vandalism law means to physically spoil, mar, or injure real or personal property without consent. This covers acts like:

  • Smashing windows
  • Slashing tires
  • Denting cars
  • Chopping down trees

Damage does not have to be permanent but it does have to be more than very minor or superficial.

Destroying Property

Destroying property means ruining or demolishing real or personal property beyond repair. For example:

  • Burning down a building
  • Causing a car to be totaled in an accident
  • Shattering heirlooms beyond restoration

Penalties for Vandalism Under California Law

Vandalism can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony in California, depending on the extent of damage and other factors.

Misdemeanor Vandalism

Misdemeanor vandalism is either:

  • Damage less than $400, or
  • Damage of $400 or more if there was no intent to cause that much damage.

Misdemeanor vandalism under Penal Code 594 is punishable by:

  • Up to 1 year in county jail, and/or
  • A fine of up to $1,000

Felony Vandalism

Felony vandalism applies when someone maliciously damages property and either:

  • Defaces property with graffiti or other inscribed material and causes over $400 in damage, or
  • Intentionally damages property worth $400 or more.

Felony vandalism is punishable by:

  • 16 months, 2 years or 3 years in California state prison, and/or
  • A fine up to $10,000

Factors that Increase the Sentence

Certain facts about a case of vandalism can result in a longer sentence. These include situations where the defendant:

  • Has a prior conviction for vandalism – This can turn a misdemeanor into a felony with additional jail time.
  • Committed vandalism for the benefit of a criminal street gang – This can add an additional 1, 2 or 3 years in prison.
  • Caused damage or destruction to a church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of worship – This can add 1 or 2 years in prison.

Legal Defenses to Vandalism Charges

Common defenses to vandalism allegations include:

Lack of intent

For a vandalism conviction, the prosecution must prove the defendant acted maliciously. This means willfully or on purpose. If the damage was accidental – for example, if you accidentally knocked a sculpture off its pedestal – then you are not guilty of vandalism.

False accusations

Sometimes people get wrongly accused of vandalism. For example, by someone holding a grudge. A solid alibi could show you were somewhere else when the incident occurred.

Mistaken identity

Eyewitnesses do make mistakes. If the person accusing you of vandalism is mistaken, a skilled California criminal defense lawyer could show the person has you confused with someone else.


Damaging property to protect yourself or someone else from harm may be justifiable. For example, breaking a window to escape an attacker. Self-defense applies only if it was necessary to prevent imminent bodily injury.

Related Offenses

Prosecutors frequently charge other offenses along with or instead of Penal Code 594 vandalism. These include:

Malicious Mischief – PC 594(b)(2)

Malicious mischief is a form of vandalism under California law. Penal Code 594(b)(2) PC makes it a crime to maliciously injure, damage, or destroy someone else’s property.

This section applies to damage that does not exceed $400. It is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a fine up to $1,000.

Trespass – PC 602

Trespassing is sometimes charged along with vandalism. Under Penal Code 602 PC, California’s criminal trespass law, it is illegal to:

  • Enter someone else’s property without permission, or
  • Refuse to leave private property after being asked to leave.

Trespass is a misdemeanor punishable by 6 months in jail and a fine up to $1,000.

Hate Crimes

If the vandalism was motivated by racial bias, for example, it could be charged as a hate crime under Penal Code 422.6 PC. Hate crime vandalism carries additional penalties of at least 3 months in county jail.

Hiring an Attorney

Vandalism charges should not be taken lightly. The penalties can be severe, especially if charged as a felony. Having an experienced California criminal defense lawyer can help get charges reduced or dismissed.

A good attorney will thoroughly examine the evidence, raise any legal defenses that apply, and challenge any weaknesses in the prosecution’s case. This provides the best chance at an acquittal or getting charges dropped. If that fails, they can advocate for reduced charges or penalties.


  1. California Penal Code 594 PC – Vandalism – FindLaw
  2. CALCRIM No. 2902. Vandalism – Justia
  3. Penal Code 594.7 PC – Prior Vandalism Convictions – California Legislative Information
  4. Penal Code 186.22 PC – Gang Sentence Enhancements – California Legislative Information
  5. Penal Code 594.35 PC – Vandalism of Places of Worship – California Legislative Information
  6. Penal Code 594 PC – Malicious Mischief – California Legislative Information
  7. California Penal Code 602 – Trespass – California Legislative Information