Vandalizing someone’s property is a criminal offense in Virginia. If a judge convicts you of vandalism, the victim may also bring a civil suit against you to fix the damage you did to their property if they don’t get full restitution through the criminal proceedings.
In this article, we’ll discuss the different degrees of vandalism charges outlined in the Virginia Code. We’ll also discuss what you can do to fight vandalism charges in Virginia.
Vandalism, Destruction of Property, and Negligence in Virginia
“Vandalism” usually refers to intentional damage done to another person’s property, without the intent to steal it.
For example, you can’t “accidentally” spray-paint a bridge or slash someone’s tires. Intent is an important factor in proving vandalism charges.
If you’re charged with general vandalism in Virginia, the judge in your case will usually consider whether the destruction was done on purpose when deciding your punishment.
Further, the property owner can usually sue you for the amount they need to repair the damage to their property.
Accidental Destruction of Property
As an alternative to vandalism, you may instead be charged with the accidental destruction of another person’s property. However, in this case, the damage must have occurred as a result of a criminal or reckless act.
For example, if you steal a car and crash it through a sign that marks the boundary of your town, an officer may charge you with the destruction of property (in addition to auto theft).
Similarly, if you get into an argument with your roommate and throw a TV out the window, you may also end up with destruction of property charges if the TV lands on another person’s car.
This is because you unlawfully destroyed another person’s property “without the intent to steal any property.”
Tampering with a Vehicle
In Virginia, tampering with a vehicle is a separate charge from criminal vandalism. It specifically refers to either of the following acts:
- Intentionally damaging or destroying a vehicle or boat to prevent it from functioning.
- Intentionally removing parts from a vehicle or boat to prevent it from functioning.
Unlike criminal vandalism, tampering with a vehicle is always a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. This is true regardless of the value of the vehicle.
Vandalism Charges and Penalties in Virginia
If someone accuses you of vandalism, they may choose to report the criminal activity to the police, who may then bring charges against you.
Specifically, the penalties can change depending on the value of the damaged property:
“If any person intentionally causes such injury [to the item], he shall be guilty of (i) a Class 1 misdemeanor if the value of, or damage to, the property, memorial, or monument is less than $1,000, or (ii) a Class 6 felony if the value of, or damage to, the property, memorial, or monument is $1,000 or more.”Virginia Code § 18.2-137
For both criminal and civil vandalism, the judge will consider several important components when deciding your case:
- Proof of Intent – Whether you intended to cause the damage.
- Proof of Identity – Whether you are the one who primarily caused the damage. For example, if you were simply a witness to the crime, the judge is unlikely to charge you with vandalism.
- Cost of the Damage – The actual, monetary amount of damage done to the property. In the criminal case, the value of the property can make the difference between a misdemeanor or a felony charge. In a civil case, the plaintiff must make a strong case for the amount of money you owe them.
What is the Difference Between Criminal and Civil Vandalism?
Technically, “vandalism” only refers to the criminal act. Destruction of property, on the other hand, is more often a matter for civil court. In fact, most destruction of property cases take place in small claims court, provided the amount in question is less than $5,000.
Remember that in a civil case the standard of evidence is not as high as in a criminal case. Similarly, the standard for negligence is much lower than criminal negligence.
For this reason, it is possible for a person to be found not guilty of criminal vandalism, but still be found liable for damages in civil court.
On the other hand, Virginia is one of several states that allows a plea of guilty or no contest in a criminal or traffic case as evidence in a civil case.
In practice, this means that a person who pled guilty or no contest to criminal vandalism and then sued in civil court will likely have such evidence entered against them which could support a finding that the person is liable for damages.
Penalties for Criminal Vandalism in Virginia
The penalties for criminal vandalism are largely up to the specific judge in your case, and depend heavily on the specific circumstances outlined above.
These penalties can range anywhere from civil penalties such as paying restitution to the property owner to more conventional penalties such as large fines and possible jail time.
In most cases, however, the penalties will follow this basic pattern:
Intentional Vandalism (damages of more than $1,000) – If you intentionally damage or destroy property worth more than $1,000, you may be found guilty of a Class 6 felony. This is punishable with a fine of up to $2,500 as well as up to 5 years in jail.
Intentional Vandalism (damages of less than $1,000) – If you intentionally damage or destroy property worth less than $1,000, you may be found guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. This is punishable with a fine of up to $2,500 and up to 12 months in jail.
Unintentional Vandalism – In very limited circumstances, you may be charged with the unintentional destruction of another person’s property. If this occurs, you’ll face a Class 3 misdemeanor charge. If convicted, you will have to pay a small fine of around $500 (plus the cost of repairing the property).
How to Fight Vandalism Charges in Virginia
If you’re facing vandalism charges in Virginia, the first thing you should do is hire an experienced criminal lawyer.
Even a misdemeanor vandalism charge is a criminal charge that will stay on your record permanently. A lawyer may be able to negotiate reduced charges or get the charges dropped altogether.
The first and easiest strategy for fighting a vandalism charge in Virginia is to agree to pay for the damage. As specifically noted in the Virginia Code:
“The court may, in its discretion, dismiss the charge if the locality or organization responsible for maintaining the injured property…files a written affidavit with the court stating it has received full payment.”Virginia Code § 18.2-137
While this section specifically references unintentional vandalism, it’s generally still a good idea to pay for the damage early even for intentional vandalism cases.
However, you should always speak with an attorney before paying for the damage. Otherwise, you may accidentally waive your ability to legitimately contest the charges or claims against you.
This is because you may be able to settle with the plaintiff before going to court simply by paying them for the damage.
If you can both agree to a restitution amount before the trial, the judge may reduce or dismiss the charges against you. Some things you should consider before offering to pay restitution:
- In a criminal vandalism case, you should only pay for the cost of replacing or repairing the property. Pain and suffering or indirect expenses should not be part of the criminal case.
- Make sure that the damage estimate is reliable. Your lawyer should consider the source of the estimate and may ask for a different estimate if that one seems high.
- Have your lawyer do the negotiation. If you try to negotiate directly with the plaintiff, you may say or admit to something you’ll later regret. Your lawyer will be able to negotiate with the plaintiff without saying or doing anything to incriminate you.
Paying Partial Restitution
There are even some cases where your lawyer can even negotiate partial restitution.
For instance, let’s consider the earlier example of the TV that got thrown out the window. Suppose the car that got damaged by the flying TV was parked illegally.
You were still acting recklessly by throwing a TV out the window, but you could also argue that you threw it knowing that the area below was a no-parking zone.
In that case, your lawyer could ask the judge to award the plaintiff a percentage of the damages. The remainder of the damages would be the car owner’s responsibility, as a consequence of parking illegally.
If the judge still doesn’t dismiss the charges, your lawyer may still be able to argue for community service instead of jail time.
In this scenario, you’d have to pay restitution to the damaged party, as well as perform mandatory community service as directed by the court.
Vandalism is a serious criminal offense in Virginia, punishable with both heavy fines and jail time.
However, if the vandalism was unintentional, or if the damage is minimal, your lawyer may be able to either negotiate for reduced charges or get the charges dropped altogether.
If the judge doesn’t order restitution for the damages in the criminal trial, the victim may still take the case to small claims court in order to sue for damages.
For this reason, it’s important that you hire an attorney who has experience fighting vandalism charges in Virginia. A lawyer can make sure that the accuser has enough evidence to prove their case, and that they are asking for a fair amount of damages.