Penal Code 591 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to maliciously disconnect, remove, injure, or obstruct any telephone, cable, or electrical line. A violation of this law can lead to misdemeanor or felony charges, and is punishable by up to 3 years in jail.
The full text of the statute reads as follows:
591. A person who unlawfully and maliciously takes down, removes, injures, disconnects, cuts, or obstructs a line of telegraph, telephone, or cable television, or any line used to conduct electricity, or any part thereof, or appurtenances or apparatus connected therewith, including, but not limited to, a backup deep cycle battery or other power supply, or severs any wire thereof, or makes an unauthorized connection with any line, other than a telegraph, telephone, or cable television line, used to conduct electricity, or any part thereof, or appurtenances or apparatus connected therewith, is subject to punishment by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that imprisonment and fine, or by imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, two or three years pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 and a fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).
Examples of unlawful acts
- in a domestic violence-related altercation, a husband smashing a phone with a baseball bat
- a person disconnecting a neighborhood electrical wire to cause a power outage
- a woman purposefully injuring her neighbor’s cable television line out of payback
Our criminal defense lawyers advise clients that there are three effective legal defenses to charges brought under this statute. These are the accused showing that he/she:
A violation of California Penal Code Section 591 is a wobbler offense. This means a prosecutor can charge it as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
A misdemeanor conviction is punishable by custody in county jail for up to one year.
A felony conviction is punishable by a jail term of up to three years.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will address the following in this article:
- 1. When is injuring/obstructing a utility, electrical, or telephone line a crime?
- 2. What are some common defenses?
- 3. What are the penalties for a violation of Penal Code 591?
- 4. Can a person get a conviction expunged?
- 5. What are some related offenses?
1. When is injuring/obstructing a utility, electrical, or telephone line a crime?
A prosecutor must prove the following elements to successfully convict a person under this statute:
- the defendant unlawfully took down, removed, damaged, obstructed, or disconnected a telegraph/telephone/cable television/electrical line, or mechanical equipment connected to the line, and
- the defendant did so maliciously.1
For purposes of this statute, someone acts “maliciously” when he or she:
- intentionally does a wrongful act, or
- acts with the unlawful intent to annoy or injure someone else.2
Note that under California law, a person is even guilty under this statute if he/she removes a battery from another person’s cell phone.3
2. What are some common defenses?
Criminal defense attorneys draw upon several different legal strategies to help clients defend against accusations under these laws. Three common defenses include the defendant showing that he/she:
- did not act maliciously,
- committed an accident, and/or
- acted out of necessity.
2.1 No malice
Recall that a defendant is only guilty under this statute if he/she acted maliciously. A defense, then, is for the accused to show that he/she did not act with this intent.
This is a similar defense to that of the above. Here, a defendant shows that while he/she may have injured a phone or electrical line, he/she did so on accident. This is opposed to acting purposely to injure a line.
Under a necessity defense, a defendant essentially tries to avoid guilt by showing that he/she had a sufficiently good reason to commit the crime. In the context of a PC 591 charge, an accused could attempt to show that he/she disconnected or injured a line because there was no other choice (e.g., because of an emergency).
3. What are the penalties for a violation of Penal Code 591?
A person who breaks this law is guilty of a wobbler offense. A wobbler is a crime that a prosecutor can charge as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on:
- the defendant’s criminal history, and
- the facts of the case.
A misdemeanor conviction under this code section is punishable by a county jail term (as opposed to a state prison term) of up to one year.4
A felony conviction is punishable by a maximum jail term of three years.5
Note that a judge has the authority to award a defendant with misdemeanor (or summary) probation in lieu of jail time.
4. Can a person get a conviction expunged?
A person convicted under these laws may get the conviction expunged, per Penal Code 1203.4 PC. This is provided he/she successfully completed:
- a jail term, or
- probation (whichever was imposed).
5. What are some related offenses?
Three laws related to this crime are:
- damaging a communication device to prevent help – PC 591.5,
- vandalism and graffiti – PC 594, and
- burglary – PC 459.
5.1 Damaging a communication device to prevent help – PC 591.5
California Penal Code 591.5 PC makes it a crime for a person maliciously to damage or obstruct a communication device in order to prevent a person from using it to seek help.
Note that this statute requires a prosecutor to show that a defendant damaged a device for the purpose of preventing a person from getting help. This “prevention of help” element is not included under PC 591.
5.2 Vandalism and graffiti – PC 594
Penal Code 594 PC is the California statute that defines vandalism as maliciously:
- destroying, or
- defacing another person’s property.
While Penal Code 591 focuses on the damage to electrical, phone, and utility lines, this statute applies to the damage of any property.
5.3 Burglary – PC 459
Penal Code 459 PC is the California statute that defines burglary as the act of entering any commercial or residential structure, or locked vehicle, with the intent to commit:
- grand theft,
- petty theft, or
- any felony once inside.
While PC 591 is a separate and distinct crime from burglary, a person often commits the former offense while burglarizing a property or vehicle.
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney, we invite you to contact our law firm at the Shouse Law Group. Our trusted attorneys offer a free consultation, and our law offices represent clients throughout California, including those in Los Angeles, Orange County, Glendale, Long Beach, Riverside, San Diego, and San Bernardino County.
- CALCRIM No. 2902 – Damaging Phone or Electrical Line. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2020 edition). See also People v. Quarles (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 631.
- See same. See also People v. Santana (2013) 56 Cal. 4th 999; and, People v. Lopez (1986) 176 Cal.App.3d 545.
- People v. Tafoya (2001) 92 Cal.App.4th 220.
- California Penal Code 591 PC.
- See same.