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What is Malicious Mischief?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: May 16, 2024

In the legal sense, malicious mischief is a term used to discuss a person’s intentional damage of someone else’s property. There may regional differences as to what constitutes this act and the degree to which the act warrants different types of punishment. This can make the term difficult to define in a broad way, since most regional laws are very specific on the acts termed malicious, mischievous, and intent on creating damage, but not all agree with each other.

Examples of this crime include things like creating graffiti. Drawings on walls or cars don’t destroy property, but they do damage it, resulting in cleaning or repair needs. Another potential act of malicious mischief is keying someone’s car or hitting it with a baseball bat, provided no one is in the car and this isn’t an overt threat to a person. Running over someone’s bicycle with a car intentionally, breaking a window, or many other things might be willful intent to damage property.

A different form that might be considered by the courts is damage to less physical forms of property. Someone who hacks into an email account and deletes all the mail may be committing a mischievous act with malicious intent. It’s possible that stealing a set of graded final papers from a teacher could be viewed as committing this crime too, and in this case, the act is not only committed against the teacher but against each student whose property is stolen and destroyed.

Different regions classify malicious mischief in many ways. They might do so in degrees based on property values, for example, and first degree could be the most serious offense and refer to damaging property with values in the mid to high $10,000 US Dollars (USD). Property with less value might result in second or third degree charges. It’s not always clear whether degree ranking refers to the value of property damaged or price to repair damage.

Within this division by degrees, courts in a region may treat this crime as either felony or misdemeanor. Misdemeanor charges may be reserved for acts that result in less damage or that damage less expensive property. In a number of jurisdictions people who commit this crime in the first degree have committed a felony.

Another potential difference with this crime is how it may be treated. Sometimes, people who commit less severe forms of malicious mischief are able to settle damages civilly, and they may appeal for what is called a compromise of misdemeanor. A judge might dismiss their cases and no criminal charges would apply.

Other people who have committed very mild third degree malicious mischief are able to complete programs or community service that result in criminal record remaining clean. These programs are usually only offered to first time offenders. In other instances, committing these acts could result in payment of fees to make up for the damage, punitive fines by the courts for committing criminal acts, and/or jail time, long hours of community service, or extensive probation.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By sunnySkys — On Dec 03, 2012

@JessicaLynn - I don't know though. Stealing a stack of graded papers harms a lot more than just one person. I think that's actually more serious than vandalizing a car. But I do agree that the penalties should be different depending on how serious the act of malicious mischief is, and if anyone gets hurt.

By JessicaLynn — On Dec 02, 2012

I think the penalties for malicious mischief should definitely vary based on how much damage was done. For instance, I don't think stealing a set of graded papers is as serious as doing thousands of dollars of damage to a very expensive car.

In the case of the papers, the perpetrator could possibly return the papers with no harm done. However, you can't exactly undo damage done to a vehicle, you have to pay money to get it repaired.

By LoriCharlie — On Dec 02, 2012

@strawCake - It's a good thing your friends learned their lesson as teenagers without getting a record. I'm also a fan of penalties that have the perpetrator do something productive. I feel like this is a good solution for non-violent crimes. It doesn't clog up our jails, and I think it definitely teaches people a lesson.

By strawCake — On Dec 01, 2012

I think the programs where people who do community service after committing a mild act of malicious mischief are really great. It's especially great for teenagers, in my opinion.

When I was in high school, a few of my friends got caught doing an act of vandalism. They ended up having to clean it up, as well as spend a day cleaning up the other parts of the building they had vandalized. It didn't go on their permanent record, and the building got cleaned. Also, they never vandalized again.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia...
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