The crime of damage to property is committed when a person intentionally causes damage to the property of another person without the other person’s permission. Specifically, the following acts constitute the crime of damage to property:

  • A person knowingly engages in conduct that causes damage to another person’s property; 
  • In some states, if a person damages property by fire or explosion while acting in a reckless manner, this can qualify as criminal damage to property;
  • In some states, starting a fire knowingly on land belonging to another person qualifies as criminal damage to property;
  • A person knowingly injures a pet belonging to another; 
  • A person damages property with the intent to collect insurance.

Criminal damage to property is a matter of state law and the law varies from state to state. In some states, intentionally causing damage to the property of another person is known as the crime of malicious damage to property, but it is essentially the same crime. 

The important feature of the crime is that a person inflicts the damage on the property intentionally and knowingly; the damage is not the result of negligence or recklessness. However, in some states, severe damage inflicted as a result of conduct that is grossly negligent may qualify.

Are There Specific Types of Criminal Damage to Property?

The kinds of damage that can be inflicted on property are as varied as the kinds of property that can be damaged. Some common types of intentional damage or malicious damage are:

  • Spray-painting another person’s property with the intent to deface it; 
  • Egging someone’s car or house; 
  • Keying the paint off of another’s car; 
  • Slashing the tires of another person’s car; 
  • Doing wheelies on someone else’s front yard and ruining their lawn;
  • Inflicting damage with hands or feet.

The crime of arson is a kind of criminal damage to property that involves damage caused by fire  that is set intentionally or by the use of explosives. However, in most states, the crime of arson is considered a much more serious crime than general criminal damage to property. It is charged as a felony and the penalties for arson can include as many as 20 years in prison and fines of up to $50,000, depending on the extent of the damage caused.

What Are the Penalties for Criminal Damage to Property?

The crime of criminal damage to property is governed by state law. In most states, the penalties depend on whether the crime is charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. The cost to repair the damage done in the commission of the crime often determines whether it is charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. 

In South Carolina, if the cost to repair the damage is $2,000 or under, it is a misdemeanor for which the penalty is a fine of up to $1,000 and/or 30 days in jail. If the property damage is from $2,000 to $10,000, the crime is charged as a felony and the penalty is a fine of up to and no more than 5 years in state prison. If the damage exceeds $10,000, the penalty is a maximum of 10 years in state prison and a fine. The sentencing judge can determine the amount of the fine.

For example, in Illinois, if the value of the damage to property is less than $300, the crime is a misdemeanor; possible penalties are up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. If the value of the property damage is above $300 and up to $10,000, the crime is a felony with a penalty of up to three years in state prison and a fine of up to $25,000.  If the damage to property is between $10,001 and $100,000 it is a felony with a possible sentence of up to 5 years in a state penitentiary and/or a fine of up to $25,000. If the value of the damage to property is over $100,000, the crime is again a felony with a possible sentence of up to 7 years in a state prison and/or a fine of up to $25,000. 

Keep in mind that a sentence of jail time is served in the jail in the city or county where the defendant was arrested. Prison time is served in a state penitentiary. There is a difference.

In some states, a prosecutor will file charges for willful destruction of property or malicious destruction of property against a person who intentionally damages or destroys the real or personal property of another. For example, in Maryland the willful, malicious destruction (or injury to or defacement of) the property of another person, whether real or personal, is a misdemeanor. Damages of less than $1,000 can be punished by up to 60 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500. If the damage exceeds $1,000 in value, the penalty is up to 3 years in state prison and a fine of up to $2,500.

State may use different language to identify the crime and differing schemes for punishment, but the basic concept is the same.

Are There Any Defenses to Criminal Damage to Property Charges?

There are several possible defenses to a charge of criminal damage to property. They are:

  • Claim of right: if a person is able to show that the property actually belongs to them or that they have some valid right to the property, they can avoid a conviction for destruction of property. Of course, only criminal damage to the property of another is a crime;
  • Necessity: If a person is able to show that the circumstances required them to damage the property of another, they can avoid conviction of the crime. For example, if a person comes upon someone who is driving toward them in the wrong lane of traffic and the only way to avoid a head on collision is to run off the road into a fence, they will probably not be charged or convicted of criminal damage to property;
  • Self-defense: if a person damages or destroys someone’s property while trying to defend themselves, then a claim of self-defense is available to the charge of criminal destruction of property. 

Of course, it is always possible for a person accused of a crime to argue that some other person is responsible for the criminal acts. Also, a person charged with the crime may argue that their acts were not intentional, but only negligent or reckless. 

Should I Hire a Lawyer If I Have Legal Issues Involving Criminal Damage to Property?

If you may be charged with criminal destruction of property, malicious destruction of property or vandalism, you should consult with an experienced criminal lawyer. A criminal defense lawyer might be able to negotiate a lesser misdemeanor charge instead of a more serious felony charge. It is never good to have a criminal record, so if you are facing the prospect of criminal charges, you need to consult a criminal defense lawyer.

Or, if you have been charged already, a criminal defense lawyer can represent you in pre-trial hearings and at trial, if necessary. You will definitely have a better outcome with your case if you have an experienced criminal defense lawyer on your side.