Criminal Mischief is a real catch-all statute in the Texas Penal Code that covers many different kinds of property damage, tampering with property, and destruction of property. There are several different things going on in this statute, but basically if you break or damage something that belongs to someone else, and no other statute applies, you could be defending this charge. The penalties for Criminal Mischief vary wildly, spanning the entire spectrum of punishment from a Class C misdemeanor all the way to a First Degree felony. It depends on what was destroyed, damaged, or tampered with, and how much. Part of the statute reads vaguely to incorporate crimes that don’t easily fit into other categories. Also included within Criminal Mischief is the interruption or destruction of powerlines or the water or gas supply. What does that mean? If you rig your electric meter to steal power, either electricity or gas. There is a weird little section about destroying any fence that holds cattle or livestock. Criminal Mischief can accompany other crimes as well, such as criminal trespass or burglary, assault or theft. After one arrest, a person can be looking at a couple of different charges. Interestingly, it is not a defense if you have an interest in the property that was damaged.
What is the Difference between Misdemeanor and Felony Criminal Mischief?
When a person is arrested for property damage or tampering with someone else’s property and no other statute fits, that person will often be charged with Criminal Mischief. When someone is arrested in Fort Worth or any of the surrounding municipalities, the police must decide how to file the incident with the Tarrant County District Attorney. Then a prosecutor will then look at it and decide whether to charge it as either a felony or a misdemeanor. For Criminal Mischief, this determination is made by dollar amount. Simply, a question of, how much? So how is that figure determined? If the property is destroyed, the damage figure will be tallied up, based on either:
- The fair market value of the property at the time and place of destruction; or
- if fair market cannot be ascertained, the cost of replacement within a reasonable time after destruction
If the property is simply damaged as opposed to destroyed, the value is figured this way:
- The cost of repairing or restoring the damaged property within a reasonable time after the damage occurred
Felonies are taken through the grand jury process. The grand jury is a process that criminal defense lawyers are not privy to. A felony prosecutor presents a case to a collection of citizens behind closed doors, and these citizens get to ask questions about the case. These citizens then decide if the case will be indicted. Once indicted, the case will then funnel into a courtroom. Cases taken to the grand jury are either “true billed” or “no billed.” No billed means the case goes away. True bill means the case goes forward. The vast majority of cases presented to the grand jury are true billed, after which they then end up in one or ten Tarrant County District Courts. District Court jurisdiction spans from state jail felonies all the way to capital crimes.
What is the Law?
The Criminal Mischief statute is located in Chapter 28 of the Texas Penal Code. It is grouped together with crimes such as arson and graffiti. Here is the text of the first two sections of the statute:
28.03. Criminal Mischief.
(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.
(b) Except as provided by Subsections (f) and (h), an offense under this section is
(1) a Class C misdemeanor if:
(A) the amount of pecuniary loss is less than $50; or
(B) except as provided in Subdivision (3)(A) or (3)(B), it causes substantial inconvenience to others;
(2) a Class B misdemeanor if the amount of pecuniary loss is $50 or more but less than $500;
(3) a Class A misdemeanor if:
(A) the amount of pecuniary loss is $500 or more but less than $1,500; or
(B) the actor causes in whole or in part impairment or interruption of any public water supply, or causes to be diverted in whole, in part, or in any manner, including installation or removal of any device for such purpose, any water supply, regardless of the amount of pecuniary loss
(4) a state jail felony if the amount of pecuniary loss is:
(A) $1,500 or more but less than $20,000
(B) less than $1,500, if the property damaged or destroyed is a habitation and if the damage or destruction is causes by a firearm or explosive weapon;
(C) less than $1,500, fi the property was a fence used for the production or containment of:
(i) cattle, bison, horses, sheep, swine, goats, exotic livestock, or exotic poultry; or
(ii) game animals as that term is defined by Section 63.001, Parks and Wildlife Code; or
(D) less than $20,000 and the actor causes wholly or partly impairment or interruption of public communications, public transportation, public gas or power supply, or other public service, or causes to be diverted wholly, partly, or in any manner, including installation or removal of any device for any such purpose, any public communications or public gas for power supply;
(5) a felony of the third degree if the amount of the pecuniary loss is $20,000 but less than $100,000;
(6) a felony of the second degree if the amount of pecuniary loss is $100,000 but less than $200,000; or
(7) a felony of the first degree if the amount of pecuniary loss is $200,000 or more
That is a lot of stuff. As you can see, the punishments span the entire range of punishment that our Penal System has to offer. It mainly has to do with the amount of damage to property. What exactly was destroyed or damaged, and how much that cost will usually be a critical issue in these types of cases. There can be a real dispute over actual value as well. For instance, if someone gets indicted for felony Criminal Mischief and the prosecutors are alleging $60,000 worth of damage, that is one of the elements of the crime. It has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. A lot of times, a good attorney will contest this in order to get the charge reduced.
What is Impairment or Interruption of Public Service?
If the State is alleging that you interrupted or impaired a public service such as power or water, this is going to be a felony, regardless of the amount of damage. This could include someone stealing electricity, water, or gas. If you mess with your electric meter in order to steal electricity, that will get you to a state jail felony, regardless of any specific dollar figure of loss. There term “public communication” is broad and includes any services subject to regulation by the Public Utility Commission of Texas, the Railroad Commission of Texas, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission or any other such services enfranchised by the State of Texas. My guess is that this is a specialty statute that is a result of lobbying by power companies.