Criminal damage to property is a broad category under criminal laws that involves various forms of damage to property. This damage may also involve other types of conduct, such as interference with another person’s right to use the property. The laws on criminal property damage will vary from state to state, as well as the corresponding punishments.

Depending on individual state laws, criminal damage to property can include many different types of violations. Most state criminal statutes define criminal damage to property as a knowingly unauthorized trespass or activity that:

  • Endangers public safety
  • Interferes with the operation of public utilities such as water; or
  • Interferes with transportation, or sewage access

Criminal property damage crimes usually also involve some risk of harm to human life. Civil property violations, on the other hand, are simply about the damage done to the property. Also, the term “property crime” is different from criminal damage to property. Property crimes usually involve theft or conversion of a person’s personal property. In comparison, “damage to property” crimes usually involve physical damage to real property.

Are There Specific Types of Criminal Damage to Property?

There can be many different types of violations that are classified as criminal damage to property  Details and elements of proof may vary for each jurisdiction, but some specific types of criminal property crimes include:

  • Criminal Mischief: This crime involves damage to property, usually involving a particular dollar amount done in damage. This means the defendant intended to damage the property, and while not having any rights to it. Criminal punishments may depend on how much damage was done to the property;
  • Criminal Tampering: This type of crime occurs when a person intentionally interrupts or impairs public utility services. An example of this is where a person intentionally cuts power lines or blocks water supplies. It may also refer to any unauthorized meddling with or altering of another’s property;
  • Use or Possession of a Noxious Substance: This involves depositing or activating any offensive smelling substance (such as a stink bomb) onto another person’s property, land, or in a building. The act must occur without the owner’s consent, and must be done to interfere with the use of the property (for instance, letting of a stink bomb for the purpose of disrupting business activities);
  • Criminal Desecration: This crime involves the defacement, destruction, or damage any gravestone, tomb, monument, or other memorial for the deceased. Some local laws may even make it a crime or a violation to break, remove, or cut any flower, tree, plant, or decoration found within a cemetery or graveyard;
  • Littering: Some forms of littering in certain places can be considered a criminal offense, especially if the area is marked as a preserved area (such as a wildlife preserve).

Again, these definitions will vary by state. You should be sure to check local laws or consult with a lawyer if you’re unsure if any type of conduct or activity might be considered criminal damage to property.

What are the Penalties for Criminal Damage to Property?

Criminal damage to property is usually categorized under state laws as a misdemeanor or a gross misdemeanor. Typically, misdemeanor convictions will result in legal consequences like fines and/or a short jail sentence of less than one year. Less serious criminal damage to property offenses, such as littering, can often be punished by a simple fine or citation.  

However, more serious criminal damage to property charges and repeat offenses can sometimes lead to felony charges. These charges are punishable by jail time of greater than one year and/or higher criminal fees. Felony charges are also more difficult to have cleared from a criminal record.

A unique aspect of criminal property charges is that the defendant may often have to pay criminal restitution to the owner of the property. Restitution refers to monetary amounts that the defendant pays to compensate the victim for their economic loss. This type of legal consequence is somewhat common in cases involving criminal damage to property.

Are There Any Defenses to Criminal Damage to Property Charges?

Some defenses may apply to cases involving criminal damage to property. These will depend on many different factors, including the exact circumstances of each case, as well as local criminal statutes. Some criminal defenses may include:

  • Lack of Intent: Most criminal damage to property crimes require that the defendant act intentionally to damage the property. If the property damage was the result of an accident or unintentional conduct, they might not be found guilty (for instance, if they were in a car accident where a car struck the side of a building).
  • Lack of Evidence: Criminal charges must be supported with the proper evidence in a criminal court of law. If the prosecution cannot provide enough evidence to prove the charges, the person might not be found guilty.
  • Emergency Situations: In some cases, it may be necessary to damage property in order to prevent an emergency or to respond to an emergency situation. This can sometimes serve as a defense. 
    • An example of this is where a person needs to break a window or a door to rescue a person that is trapped inside a building or a car.
  • Coercion: It may be a defense if a person is forced to damage property under threat of physical harm or injury.
  • Various Other Defenses: these will depend on the surrounding circumstances of the case.

Some of these defenses can be complex and may apply only to certain circumstances. The assistance of a criminal lawyer can be helpful when it comes to creating a criminal defense strategy.

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

Criminal damage to property is a serious crime that can often lead to serious criminal consequences. You may want to contact and hire a criminal attorney if you are facing charges for criminal damage to property.  Your lawyer can assist you during trial, and can help perform different legal tasks such as filing documents or reviewing forms.