Car Vandalism 101: Crimes and Penalties

by Team eLocal
A human hand uses a key to scratch the paint of the exterior of a vehicle in an act of vandalism, vandalism, vandal, criminal damage, criminal, damage, paint job, hand, human hand, key, keying a car, scratch paint, paint, car, vehicle, crime

Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.

Car vandalism is a crime according to state law, but many people are unsure about what car vandalism actually is.

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Whether you're a car owner who has experienced damage to your vehicle or you've been arrested for car vandalism, understanding what constitutes vandalism under the law and what to do next can help you protect your rights.

What Is Car Vandalism?

Car vandalism is the criminal act of deliberately damaging someone else's car. The damage can be repairable or permanent, but it must be intentional. Generally, there must also be evidence that the person accused acted maliciously. You won't usually be charged with car vandalism if you damage a car accidentally, although you may have to pay for any necessary repairs.

Road traffic collisions don't count as vandalism, even if the other party was at fault. The term also excludes damage caused by poorly maintained road surfaces, weather events and car burglary.

A shattered car window after a car has been vandalized. Shards of glass are all over the front seat.  rr

Examples of Car Vandalism

Some acts of car vandalism involve cosmetically defacing the vehicle, while others cause more serious structural or internal damage. Examples include:

  • Slashed tires
  • Graffiti
  • Keyed bodywork (scratching the paint with a key)
  • Smashed windows or lights
  • Dents

Egging is a less obvious example of car vandalism. While it may seem like a harmless prank, egg white can inflict severe damage on a vehicle's paintwork if it isn't cleaned quickly, and the shells can cause scratches when they break. Placing substances, such as sugar or water, inside the gas tank can also qualify as vandalism if it damages the car.

Penalties for Car Vandalism

The laws surrounding car vandalism vary from state to state. Depending on the severity and dollar amount of the damage, it can be a misdemeanor or felony offense. Most states count acts of vandalism resulting in damage worth $1,000 or less as misdemeanors, while acts exceeding this value are felonies. However, some states set the threshold between misdemeanors and felonies lower. Others always count damaging a vehicle as a felony.

Potential penalties include:

Fines

Many states issue court fines as a penalty for car vandalism. The size of the fine depends on various factors, including the severity of the act. Following a car vandalism conviction, people who receive a fine must pay the amount directly to the court, and the money doesn't go to the car's owner. However, a court may order a restitution payment in addition to a fine. This payment goes to the victim and is usually an amount sufficient to repair or replace the car.

cropped image of prison officer wearing handcuffs on prisoner

Jail

Very serious acts of car vandalism may result in a jail sentence. Generally, courts are more likely to impose a jail sentence if the act counts as a felony offense, although misdemeanors can sometimes carry a shorter jail sentence. Getting sent to jail is more likely if the person has a history of repeated car vandalism convictions.

In some situations, a person may be placed on probation instead of (or as well as) going to jail. In this situation, the person must comply with specific terms and conditions to remain on probation. Breaking these rules could result in them going or returning to jail to complete their sentence.

Community Service

Sometimes, judges order community service as an alternative to jail time or a fine. Community service is unpaid work that benefits the community, such as volunteering. This penalty is designed to deter would-be car vandals and to allow people convicted of the crime to make amends in a practical way.

Courts can't usually order community service for serious crimes, so it's a more likely penalty for a misdemeanor offense than a felony. Failure to attend court-mandated community service can result in a fine or jail sentence.

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Do You Need a Lawyer If You're Arrested for Car Vandalism?

It is up to you whether to use an attorney if you're arrested for car vandalism, but it's generally a good idea. Penalties for vandalism can be significant, so it's important to understand the details of your case. Even if the penalty is small, a vandalism conviction can go on your permanent criminal record and affect your rights. An experienced lawyer can protect your rights and help you prepare the best possible defense.

What Should You Do If Your Car Has Been Vandalized?

If someone vandalizes your car, the most important thing is to ensure your safety. Therefore, it's sensible to check for hazards, such as broken glass, before approaching your vehicle. You should also consider phoning the police.

Sometimes, the police will send a response car to investigate the scene. If not, you should photograph the damage yourself before cleaning up any debris, as you can't usually file a report without photographic evidence. If it's safe to do so, look inside the car and make a list of any stolen items.

Finally, file a police report. Often, criminals carry out several offenses over a short time, and your report could help the police gather evidence to solve a larger crime. You'll also need to file a police report to claim for any damages through your insurance. Prepare the following documents and information before reporting the crime:

  • Evidence of the damage and any thefts, including photographs
  • Your driver's license
  • Your car's registration information
  • Details of your auto insurance policy
  • The time you think the vandalism took place

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