Criminal Mischief

Texas Criminal Law

Criminal Mischief is a crime against property, and includes such activities as vandalism, graffiti, or tampering with a utility service.

A Criminal Mischief charge typically occurs in a situation where the property of someone else gets damaged or tampered with in some way, and the property owner notifies the police.

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If you are with another individual who actually committed the offense, even the person who was not involved may be charged with the crime as well. You can also be charged with this crime for “skimming” from utility, such as diverting a cable line to your home, bypassing a water meter, or diverting water away from an irrigation ditch for your own use.

What is the current Texas law about Criminal Mischief?

The current Texas law defines the offense of Criminal Mischief in Penal Code Section §28.03 as follows:[1]

(a) A person commits an offense if, without the effective consent of the owner:

(1) he intentionally or knowingly damages or destroys the tangible property of the owner;

(2) he intentionally or knowingly tampers with the tangible property of the owner and causes pecuniary loss or substantial inconvenience to the owner or a third person; or

(3) he intentionally or knowingly makes markings, including inscriptions, slogans, drawings, or paintings, on the tangible property of the owner.

In general, this means that any sort of situation where you might do something that negatively affects the property of someone else without their permission, you might be in a position to be charged with the offense.

What is the range of punishment for Criminal Mischief?

Because Criminal Mischief is a very broad offense, it has been written so that the punishments can be as low as a Class C Misdemeanor all the way up to a First Degree Felony. In general, any sort of damage or tampering of property that costs less than $1,500 in damages is a Misdemeanor. Damage that exceeds $1,500 fall in the Felony range.

However, there are some specific circumstances that make a low-damage act a felony. For example, even if the cost of damage is less than $1,500, it can still be a felony offense if the property is a place of worship, or a fence that pens in livestock animals, or if an explosive device or firearm is used to damage the property. If the tampering or damage causes some sort of public service, like electricity, telephone systems, or water services, to be impaired even partially, the punishment level can be raised into the felony range, even if the actual cost of the damage is less than $1,500. Learn more about the range of punishments for Texas crimes

I didn’t intend to damage the property, am I still in trouble?

According to the Texas Penal Code, the specific requirement for this crime is knowingly or intentionally. That means if you either were aware of the consequences of your actions, or it was your specific goal to cause the damage, then you acted with knowledge or intent. If you had no knowledge of what you were doing or had no intention of doing the damage/tampering with the property (for example if you were pushed and fell through a wooden fence or tripped over a can of paint causing it to spill onto someones porch), then you do not meet that requirement. Proving what you knew or intended can be critical to the overall success of your case.

What does tangible property mean?

Tangible property means anything that you can physically touch or interact with. For example, a sign is a physical object, and would be considered tangible property. The words on the sign, specifically the ideas behind them, are not physical. If you were to post your own sign with the same words, but with a giant X through them, you’re not tampering with the physical nature of the property, just the idea behind it. Ideas, thoughts, or slogans are not physical objects and are not covered under this statute.

If multiple pieces of property were tampered with or damaged, is that one offense or multiple offenses?

To “tamper” with something can be a very broad definition. At its simplest definition, it means to alter something. This can either be by adding something (like spraying paint onto a wall), taking something away (for example, pulling out a fence post from a farm pen), or changing something without taking away or adding to it (for example, breaking a water meter).

Common examples of tampering might include “getting free cable” by running an unauthorized cord to a cable box, or cutting a hole through a fence, or even posting a political poster on a wall without permission. The range of situations that might fall under this definition can be far ranging, and if you’re unsure whether or not your actions qualify, it’s important that you speak with an attorney who can counsel you.

What does it mean to tamper with something?

Under Texas law, if multiple pieces of property were damaged or tampered with in a continuous method (the law calls this a continuing course of conduct), each piece of property damage or cost can be added together. That means that if three pieces of property were damaged separately but by the same person or people with the same goal or general patter of activity, the cost can be added together for the purpose of determining the punishment level. So if three pieces of property were each damaged for $600, instead of three charges at Class A Misdemeanors, it could be one charge as a State Felony at $1,800.

What changed in 2017?

The penalty structure for a Criminal Mischief conviction was changed slightly in H.B. 1257, passed in 2017 during the 85th Texas Legislature. With this bill, effective September 1, 2017, the base punishment level for a conviction for Criminal Mischief is a state jail felony when “the property damaged is a “property used for flood control purposes or a dam.”[2] H.B. 2817, also 85th Legislature, created a base offense level of a third degree felony for using a weapon to “cause the death of one or more head of cattle or bison or one or more horses.”[3] The bill also makes an exception for you if you kill the livestock in the course of your military or agricultural duties.

Legal References:

^1. Texas Penal Code §28.03^2. Texas Penal Code §28.03(b)(4)(D)(i), as created by House Bill 1257, 85th Texas Legislature, Section 1, effective September 1, 2017^3. Texas Penal Code §28.03(b)(5)(B) & §28.03(k), as created by House Bill 2817, 85th Texas Legislature, Section 2, effective September 1, 2017

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