Introduction to Arizona Vandalism Criminal Defense

Criminal property damage, better known as vandalism, is a common and fairly low-level crime in many instances.  However, like most non-violent charges, the penalty increases substantially relative to the value of the damage itself.  This article will explain what the charge of vandalism encompasses in Arizona, along with possible penalties and defense strategies if charged with vandalism.

What is Vandalism?

In Arizona, pursuant to A.R.S. 13-1602, you can be charged with vandalism for any of the following:

-Defacing or damaging property

-Tampering with property to impair its function/value

-Drawing or inscribing slogans, signs, words, or other symbols on public or private buildings,     also known as graffiti.

Introduction to Arizona Vandalism Criminal DefenseAny of these acts are considered instances of criminal property damage.  However, as mentioned before, it is not the specific act but the value of the damage done which determines the penalty given.  Unless the property is completely destroyed, even the value of the property is not factored into determinations of punishment- only the value of the damage.  The specific penalties follow bands of value, calculated as follows:

Class 2 misdemeanor: If the value of the damage is less than 250 dollars, you will be charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor.  A Class 2 misdemeanor is not a terrible charge, but can result in up to four months in jail and 750 dollars in fines.

Class 6 felony:  If the value of the damage is between 250 and 2000 dollars, you will be charged with a Class 6 felony.  A Class 6 felony is the weakest of the felony charges, but carries with it a prison sentencing range between six and eighteen months, along with other penalties.

Class 5 felony:  If the value of the damage is between 2000 and 10,000 dollars, you will be charged with a Class 5 felony.  A Class 5 felony carries with it a prison sentencing range between eight months and two years, along with other penalties.

Class 4 felony: If the value of the damage inflicted is above 10,000 dollars, you will be charged with a Class 4 felony.  A Class 4 felony has a prison sentencing range of one and a half to three years in prison, along with a slew of other penalties.

Extreme Vandalism, or Aggravated Criminal Damage:

Aggravated criminal damage poses harsher penalties than normal criminal damage because it either implies more intent in your actions or extreme recklessness.  Largely, an aggravated criminal damage charge is predicated on where the vandalism occurred.  According to Arizona law, vandalism can be an act of aggravated criminal damage when you:

-Deface, damage, or change the appearance of any building, structure, personal property, or church (with more intent or recklessness than normal vandalism)

-The defacement or damaging of a school.

-The defacement or damaging of a mortuary or cemetery.

extreme Arizona Vandalism Criminal DefenseAs with normal criminal damage charges, the penalties manifest themselves in bands based on value of the damage done.  However, due to the aggressive nature of the charge, receiving a felony requires dealing far less property damage than typical vandalism.  The chart is as follows:

Class 6 felony: If the value of the damage is less than 500 dollars, you may be charged with a Class 6 felony.  A Class 6 felony carries with it a sentencing range between six and eighteen months, along with other penalties.

Class 5 felony: If the value of the damage is between 500 and 10,000 dollars, you may be charged with a Class 5 felony.  A Class 5 felony carries with it a sentencing range between eight months and two years in prison, along with other penalties.

Class 4 felony: If the value of the damage exceeds 10,000 dollars, you will be charged with a Class 4 felony.  A Class 4 felony carries with it a sentencing range between one and a half and three years in prison, along with other penalties.  Interestingly, this charge is identical between aggravated and normal criminal damage charges.

Beyond Class 4:  There are cases where a penalty can exceed a Class 4 felony.  More serious punishments are generally only dispersed when the vandalism involves agricultural property, construction sites, or structures meant to extract metals.  There are no official penalty standards based on this criteria, but because tampering with large-scale sites can mean damage vastly exceeding 10,000 dollars, penalties can increase based on this.  See the Arizona Revised Statute on criminal damage.

Hate Crime Vandalism:

Just like determining aggravated criminal damage, determining whether vandalism is a hate crime is predicated on both context and intent.  In Arizona, pursuant to A.R.S. 13-701, a crime is a hate crime when:

-there is an underlying criminal act

-the motivation for the crime must be hate or bias toward a particular class or group defined by such characteristics as race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, or national origin

-the perpetrator must have selected the victim of the crime based on a perception or belief that the victim or victim’s family, friends, or associates belong to that group or class.

Arizona Vandalism Criminal Defense and hate crimesIn Arizona, hate crimes are not penalized as acts independent of the over-arching crime, but rather as an exacerbation of that crime.  When a judge is determining a penalty, they will generally settle somewhere between the minimum sentencing range and highest sentencing range in a middle ground known as the presumptive sentence.  In theory, a wholly typical vandalism charge within a certain band will result in a sentence that is the absolute average of the low (mitigated) sentence and high (aggravated) sentence, changing based on the nature of the crime.  For instance, perhaps a vandalism defendant cites an intervening factor affecting their role in the crime- the judge may dispense a mitigated sentence, closer to the lower end of the sentencing range.  However, if your vandalism charge is proven to be a hate crime, a judge will ostensibly dispense a worse punishment, often touching the top of the sentencing range.

Hate-crime vandalism is one of the most common forms of hate crime, because it is usually anonymous and low-risk.  Due to the diverse, immigrant population of Phoenix, hate-crime vandalism is all too common, and is sadly on the rise.  In fact, between 2009 and 2010, reports of racially motivated hate crimes in Phoenix rose forty percent.  Just this month, a case of hate-crime vandalism was reported in San Tan Valley at the home of Arizona house Republican hopeful Adam Stevens.  He awoke to find his porch, driveway, and campaign sign spray-painted with swastikas and other antisemitic messages, poking fun at his Jewish heritage.  It is upsetting that in our modern era of supposed acceptance, public officials are still scrutinized based on uncontrollable factors like race and ethnicity.

There are also acts which seem like hate-crime vandalism, but are actually just hate crimes.  A popular example of this arose at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, where a noose was hung on the door of a black female professor who taught classes on racial identity and multiculturalism.  Although the hanging of a noose is undeniably a hate-crime, it would not be considered vandalism, since it does not involve damage to the door.  Although Arizona law has no explicit means to deal with a crime which is solely a hate crime, there are several federal laws outlining the punishments associated with various hate crimes where State law falters.

Possible Defenses:

Even with common vandalism, the prosecution must prove that the vandalism was done with some form of intent- that is, the vandalism cannot be completely unintentional.  Regardless of the damage done, that damage must have been committed for the express purpose to deface, devalue or destroy said property.  Thus, one of the most common vandalism defenses is to claim the vandalism was an accident, or was committed without malicious intent.  Let’s say you are playing catch in your front yard and the ball flies over your head and breaks your neighbor’s window.  Although you have committed damage requisite to a certain penalty band, this is not vandalism, but an accident.  Although this defense does protect the defendant from a vandalism charge, you will still likely be responsible for the damage done- a small price to pay in comparison to prison time.

A second defense strategy would be to prove that the defendant either owned the property in question or operated with the permission of the owner.  This defense can work to resolve landlord issues, where miscommunication often arises in relation to refurbishments.  If you are leasing an apartment and was given permission to rip out the cabinets, the landlord cannot then claim this as vandalism.  This defense strategy sometimes relies on hearsay, but can also be predicated on that particular state’s zoning codes or preexisting landlord laws.

possible defenses for Arizona Vandalism Criminal DefenseA final defense, and the one which is most reliant on context, is to claim vandalism as art or as political expression.  Because vandalism is entirely based on the value of the damage done to property, it must be proven that the property did indeed lose value due to that vandalism.  Let us take a common form of vandalism- graffiti, or street art.  The beauty and value of graffiti is mostly subjective, but there are standards of judgment.  For instance, a simple gang tag will never be considered art in the eyes of the court, due to both the lack of artistic and cultural merit.  This is the bulk of graffiti- either gang symbols marking territory or random markings devoid of value, often created to intentionally mar or devalue property.

Neither of these forms of graffiti will work for this defense.  However, there are those who practice graffiti as an art form, and will create murals that demonstrate both artistic and cultural intentionality.  One could argue that this form of graffiti, fairly common in urban areas around the world,  does not detract value from property, but actually enhances it.  Say the owner of a building sues a graffiti artist for spraying a mural on the side of his/her building.  If the artist can prove that the mural has artistic or cultural merit, a judge may rule that the graffiti is not vandalism, even though it was committed intentionally.  However, depending on state, the artist may still be forced to remove the art if requested or pay for the removal of the art, pursuant to the individual judge’s decision.

The line between vandalism and art is one that has been challenged many times in modern history.  In 19th century France, famed philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought of vandalism as essential to the very nature of society; because the cultural and artistic achievements of a society are based on the exploitation of certain people, those exploited people will invariably rebel against that culture by marring the achievements procured at their expense.  His contemporary, painter Gustave Courbet, actualized this philosophy in his politically fueled disassembling of the Vendome column.  This is considered the first act of artistic vandalism in the modern world.  In the 1970’s, New York officials coated subway walls with teflon paint to prevent the rampant graffiti of the time.  In the modern era, famed European graffiti artist Banksy is both a renegade and a part of popular culture; the removal of many of his works have been met with public outrage, so officials leave it up.  Banksy is also sure to only work on buildings without architectural or historical merit, so as to avoid the stereotype espoused by Nietzsche- that any form of vandalism is rebelling against culture itself.  His art, instead, is intended to add to the cultural complexity of a neighborhood, and to spread messages of love and peace.

Interested in learning more about vandalism in the state of Arizona?  We’d love to hear from you!  Comment below or reach out to us on our social media channels.  If you need criminal defense assistance regarding vandalism or aggravated criminal damage in the state of Arizona, contact an experienced defense attorney today.  Authored by a criminal defense lawyer in Tucson.