What is criminal mischief? In short, any time someone damages a property without the owner’s permission, they’ll likely face criminal mischief charges. However, in practice, it’s rarely as simple as that. It can be challenging to determine whether someone is guilty or not, or whether they did what they did accidentally or intentionally. 

If you’ve been accused of criminal mischief or are simply looking to understand its definition, this article is for you.

What Is the Definition of a Criminal Mischief?

Criminal mischief or malicious mischief is typically defined as the intentional damage or destruction of another person’s or public property without consent. However, keep in mind that each state has its own definition of what constitutes criminal mischief.

Laypeople are probably more familiar with the synonymous term of vandalism, which can include anything from spray-painting graffiti on a building to smashing a window. In some cases, criminal mischief may also involve trespassing. 

The extent of damage varies, but regardless of it being small or big, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a crime.

Elements of Criminal Mischief

Before the perpetrator can be convicted of criminal mischief, the prosecutor must be able to prove several elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. These include:

  • That the defendant (the person accused of criminal mischief) intentionally damaged or destroyed someone else’s property; Of course, the question of criminal responsibility comes into play here as well. If children playing soccer in a nearby park accidentally break your window, that can hardly constitute criminal mischief. Even though the damage to your property was done - parties will likely resolve this case outside of court.
  • That the defendant did not have the owner’s consent to damage or destroy the property in question; for example, if you gave a friend permission to paint your garage door, but they painted it the wrong color, that wouldn’t warrant a criminal mischief case.
  • The intent behind it was not to commit arson, burglary, or theft. Committing one of these property crimes will warrant different proof in court.

Examples of Criminal Mischief

Graffiti is one of the most common forms of criminal mischief. It can include anything from spray painting a building to etching words or drawings into a car window.

Another example would be if someone intentionally smashed a window. This could be done as part of an act of vandalism, for example, during a protest or out of spite, let’s say, during an argument with a spouse. The same goes for keying someone’s car, removing road signs, but also for hacking someone’s device.

Trespassing, too, is, in some states, considered one of the common criminal mischief examples. 

Sometimes, the charge of criminal mischief is brought against someone caught in the act of committing another crime. For example, if someone is caught during the act of burglary, they may also be charged with criminal mischief for damaging the property.

Criminal Mischief Degrees

Criminal mischief is typically classified as a misdemeanor, but it can be classified as a felony under certain circumstances. Many states differentiate four criminal mischief degrees. The first and lowest is a Class C misdemeanor, while the most serious is a first-degree felony. 

The severity of the charge depends on how much damage was done and sometimes on the nature of the damaged property. For example, in Florida:

  • If the damage is less than $200, the criminal mischief is classified as a misdemeanor;
  • If the damage is between $200 and $1,000, it’s a misdemeanor of the first degree;
  • If the damage is more than $1,000, it’s a felony of the third degree.

If the damaged property was public or someone was in danger or hurt by the act, the charge may be more severe.

Instruments used to commit criminal mischief also play a key role in determining the severity of the crime. Setting off bombs, explosives, using guns, and starting fires to destroy or damage someone’s property is, in most states, considered first-degree criminal mischief and can result in much more severe penalties than criminal mischief classified as a misdemeanor.

Often, the degree will be influenced by whether or not this was the first time the defendant has committed this type of crime or if it was part of a series of crimes. 

Penalties for Criminal Mischief

The penalties vary depending on the degree of the crime, but also on the state, the extent of damage done, whether or not the defendant had previous offenses on their record and other factors, such as the particular state’s law.

Generally speaking, though, misdemeanor criminal mischief will typically result in a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to one year in jail. Criminal mischief classified as a felony, on the other hand, can result in much harsher penalties, including years of incarceration and significantly higher fines.

It’s important to note that these are general guidelines and that specific cases may vary significantly. That being said, some common penalties include:


Since the most common mischief is spraying graffiti or similar cases of minor criminal mischief misdemeanor, the penalty is usually a fine, especially if it’s the first time the defendant has committed such a crime. The fines for misdemeanors typically range between $200 and $1,000. However, if the ruling is that the crime committed is a felony, the penalties will be significantly higher. The offender could be looking at a fine of $5,000 or even higher if the damage to the property is substantial or if people’s lives or health were placed at risk while the offender was committing the criminal mischief felony.  

Probation or Community Service

Community service, or probation, is also a standard penalty for minor criminal mischief. Judges may rule only the probation or combine it with other penalties. Probation will often include community service, counseling, or restricting the defendant from using alcohol, drugs, or weapons. Probation might last from several months to several years.  

Paying Restitution to the Victim 

If there’s damage to a property, the court will almost always rule restitution as the penalty. Restitution aims to compensate the owner for the damage done to their home or other property. It’s important to understand that restitution is separate from other fees the defendant may have to pay, such as fines paid to the state. 

Determining the appropriate amount to be paid is not easy. Still, it’s something defenders often have to handle, meaning the lawyers you hire will likely have a lot of experience with it and will be able to reduce the total amount of reimbursement. Criminal justice experts typically calculate the total amount of reimbursement by totaling the financial losses the victim suffered, which are directly related to the damage on the property criminal mischief caused. 


Jail time is another typical sentence for criminal mischief. If the extent of the damage is significant, the defendant may be sentenced to a period of incarceration at either state prison or local jail. The term of imprisonment might be as short as a month or two for damages in the range of a few hundred dollars or less. However, if the criminal mischief is deemed a felony or someone’s life was put at risk, the sentence will be measured in years.

Common Defenses to Criminal Mischief Charges

Several defenses may be available to someone accused of criminal mischief. These include:

  • The defendant had the owner’s permission to damage the property;
  • The defendant was falsely accused;
  • The damage was done accidentally; or
  • There was a legitimate reason for damaging the property.

Although defendants in criminal trials may be allowed to represent themselves in court, it’s best to hire a lawyer and not attempt to handle the case yourself, especially if the charges against you are severe and implicate serious degrees of criminal mischief and severe penalties. If the charges might lead to imprisonment and you can’t afford a lawyer, you’ll be appointed a public defender. Otherwise, you should hire a private lawyer to represent you in court.