The simple answer is yes, you can go to jail for smashing a car window. Criminal mischief is a misdemeanor in New York. But as always, the issue is complicated. For example, assume Max sees a dog in a hot car. Many states have Good Samaritan laws that protect Max if he smashes the car’s window to rescue the dog. Unfortunately, New York isn’t one of these states. So what happens if you are facing vandalism charges in Rochester, NY?
The uncertainty in this area most likely goes back to the Eighth Commandment (thou shalt not steal for anyone who missed that particular Sunday School lesson). According to Jewish scholars, the Hebrew refers to stealing people as opposed to stealing property, so the Eighth Commandment may be better translated as “thou shalt not kidnap.”  Kidnapping a person is a lot different from smashing someone’s car window.
Usually, prosecutors don’t care about what the law should say, what’s right, or what’s fair. They usually just want to convict defendants of the most serious possible charges. Only an equally determined Rochester criminal defense lawyer levels the playing field. Our team works hard to ensure that a judge never convicts a defendant until the judge hears all the facts, not just the prosecutor’s version of events.
New York Vandalism Laws
First, second, third, and fourth-degree criminal mischief are the most common desecration of property charges in New York. The degree depends on the following:
- The dollar amount of damage (the property owner determines this amount, as long as it’s a reasonable amount),
- Mental state (accidentally, recklessly, or intentionally),
- Kind of property damaged, and
- The means the defendant used to damage the property.
The mental state might be the most critical factor. “Accidentally” is turning around and knocking over a glass of wine. “Recklessly” is throwing a glass of wine, perhaps at someone, and not caring where it lands. “Intentionally” is throwing a glass of wine on a Medieval tapestry.
First-degree criminal mischief is a Class B felony (up to 25 years in prison). All other criminal mischief levels are misdemeanors.
Criminal tampering, a related offense, is meddling or interfering with someone else’s property. This offense is basically the criminal law equivalent of a civil nuisance action. Essentially, nuisance is causing a disturbance that prevents reasonable people from using and enjoying their property. Loud, obscene, or violent protestors near private property could face criminal tampering charges, although such activity is probably disturbing the peace. Cutting off someone else’s utility services, like during a divorce proceeding, could also be criminal tampering.
New York law divides this offense into three degrees, which are defined by the defendant’s intent and the nature of the property tampered with. The most serious of the offenses, criminal tampering in the first degree, is the only such offense that is a felony and could mean seven years in prison.
Possible Defenses for Vandalism Charges in Monroe County
Vandalism, like most criminal offenses, could have procedural and substantive defenses. A Rochester criminal defense lawyer doesn’t have to “beat” the charges in court to resolve the case successfully. Instead, the defense must only be strong enough to make prosecutors think twice about their chances at trial.
Sometimes, criminal mischief is basically a publicity stunt. For example, climate change activists have recently and publicly defaced certain works of art. Generally, however, people deface property when no one is looking. So, officers usually need arrest warrants before they put someone in handcuffs.
Judges issue these warrants if officers file valid probable cause affidavits. Security camera footage showing the defendant smashing a car’s windshield or otherwise defacing property is probable cause. Eyewitnesses who saw the defendant near the scene are most likely sufficient. The owner’s uncorroborated assertion is probably not sufficient.
Lack of intent is usually the most effective substantive defense in vandalism cases. Typically, prosecutors use conduct to prove intent. There’s a big difference between an open-handed slap and a closed-fist punch. But there may be no such evidence in the absence of a security video. Prosecutors could use the extent of damage to prove vandalism wasn’t accidental. But the amount of damage usually doesn’t prove if the conduct was intentional or reckless, at least beyond a reasonable doubt.
We’ve mentioned the ties that vandalism has to religious and civil law. Because of these ties, prosecutors normally don’t pursue these cases too vigorously. Instead, they consider the matter a civil dispute between the two parties.
Lack of interest is really an issue if the defendant has an excuse, like smashing a car window to save an overheated pet. Legally, the defendant has no defense in this case. But the facts make the defendant look like the “good guy” and the property owner look like the “bad guy.”
Generally, pretrial diversion is an option in these cases, especially if a Rochester criminal defense lawyer convinces prosecutors to downgrade the charges. Program requirements vary in different courts. Typically, prosecutors dismiss the charges if the defendant pays restitution, stays out of trouble with the law for a few months, and jumps through a few other hoops.
Get Help with Vandalism Charges from a Qualified Criminal Defense Attorney
There’s a big difference between a criminal arrest and a criminal conviction. Contact the Law Office of Frank Ciardi forr a free consultation with an experienced Rochester traffic violation attornei. We routinely handle matters in Monroe County and nearby jurisdictions.