In Pennsylvania, criminal mischief charges cover most offenses related to damaging someone else’s property. The severity of the charge depends on the exact intent and the amount of damage done. Because intent can be subjective, there are a number of possible defenses to a criminal mischief charge.

What Is the Definition of Criminal Mischief?

Pennsylvania Code Title 18 Section 3304 defines six separate ways to commit criminal mischief.

  • Causing damage to the property of another using fire, explosives, or certain other dangerous means either intentionally, recklessly, or negligently.
  • Intentionally or recklessly tampering with the property of another to endanger another person or their property.
  • Intentionally or recklessly causing someone to suffer pecuniary loss by deception or threat.
  • Defacing or damaging property with graffiti using paint, markers, or other devices.
  • Intentionally damaging property.
  • Intentionally defacing property with a paintball gun or paintball marker.

What Are the Consequences of a Criminal Mischief Charge?

There are multiple degrees of criminal mischief that depend on the harm done. More serious degrees have higher consequences.

  • An intentional act that causes damage or loss exceeding $5,000 is a third-degree felony. A third-degree felony carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
  • An intentional act that causes a substantial interruption or impairment of public communication, transportation, supply of water, gas, power, or other public services is also a third-degree felony.
  • An intentional act that causes damage or loss exceeding $1,000 is a second-degree misdemeanor. This carries a maximum sentence of two years in jail and a $5,000 fine.
  • An intentional or reckless act that causes damage or loss exceeding $500 is a third-degree misdemeanor. This carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
  • A graffiti offense that covers loss in excess of $150 is a third-degree misdemeanor.
  • Any other criminal mischief offenses are a summary offense. This carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $300 fine.

How Is the Amount of Loss Determined?

The amount of loss in a criminal mischief case in the actual financial harm caused. Like any other element of a crime, the prosecution has to prove the loss caused beyond a reasonable doubt.

Calculating the loss is fairly similar to a claim for damage in a car accident. The victim of criminal mischief would normally be entitled to their repair costs. If their item were damaged beyond repair, or the cost of repairing it would exceed its value, they’d normally be entitled to receive what it was worth before the act of criminal mischief. They are not entitled to receive a brand new item if their item was not brand new. They’re also not entitled to receive the full current value of their item if the damage did not cause a total loss.

Repair costs are normally determined by reasonable estimates from the appropriate repair professional or by the cost of a replacement part if one part of a larger item is destroyed. The current value can be determined by what similar items are selling for, insurance claim guidelines, or similar sources. The prosecution must show evidence establishing the loss amount, and the defense is entitled to show similar types of evidence in support of a lower loss amount.

Is Restitution Required in Criminal Mischief Cases?

Restitution is when someone convicted of a crime is required to repay the victim for the harm caused. A judge can include restitution in the sentence of virtually any crime. Restitution is a common part of the sentence for criminal mischief because there is usually a clearly defined financial loss to the victim.

If you can’t afford to pay restitution in full, the judge will often order a payment plan. The judge will take your ability to pay into account when determining the length of the payment plan.

Can You Pay Restitution to Avoid a Conviction for Criminal Mischief?

In some cases, you may be able to pay restitution in exchange for avoiding criminal charges, having your charges dropped, or receiving a reduced charge. This is part of the plea bargaining that is involved in any criminal case.

The prosecutor will consider the seriousness of the charges and your criminal history. You are more likely to get a deal if you caused minor damage and have no prior criminal history than if you have a long criminal record and caused major damage. The prosecutor will also typically consult with the victim before offering any deal.

If you do receive a deal, you generally need to pay the full restitution amount before the deal is final. If you need time to pay, it is common that the agreement includes a delay in the case where you will go back to court to make the deal final after you pay the full amount.

What Are Defenses to Criminal Mischief?

There are several possible defenses to criminal mischief.

  • Lack of intent. You may have only accidentally caused the damage, or there is no proof that the damage wasn’t accidental. For example, you may have made a bad throw playing baseball rather than intentionally throwing a ball through a window. Note that you may still have civil liability for damage you caused, even if it wasn’t criminal mischief.
  • You didn’t do it. The damage may have been caused by someone else, or the prosecution can’t prove that you were the person who caused the damage. The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you caused the damage, not just that you were nearby.
  • Reducing the value of the damage. If the prosecutor can’t prove the amount of damage they charged you with, it could lower your charge or mean that there wasn’t enough damage to charge you with a crime at all.

Note that being under the influence of a drug or alcohol is generally not a defense. As with a DUI or sex crimes, you are still generally responsible for your actions when you choose to consume a controlled substance that could potentially hinder your judgment.

What Happens When a Minor Is Charged With Criminal Mischief?

As with other crimes, criminal mischief is defined the same way for minors as it is for adults. Depending on the minor’s age, a jail or prison sentence may be replaced with juvenile detention or enrollment in a diversion program. Judges and prosecutors are also typically more open to alternatives to prosecution that include making restitution.

It’s important to understand that there is still a chance for a criminal charge or conviction that can affect things like college applications and future employment. There is no guarantee of being able to make restitution and avoid charges. Admitting to the offense without a deal in place may not be the right move from a criminal defense perspective.

Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

If you’ve been charged with criminal mischief and need legal help, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. We can help you explore the law and facts of your case to help you learn more about the available options. Our mission is to help each client protect their rights — whether that’s by seeking a favorable deal or going to trial. Call today to schedule your free consultation or to request more information.