Updated June 7, 2020
Vehicle Code 10853 VC is the California statute that makes it a crime to commit malicious mischief to a vehicle. This section states that “No person shall with intent to commit any malicious mischief, injury, or other crime, climb into or upon a vehicle whether it is in motion or at rest, nor shall any person attempt to manipulate any of the levers, starting mechanism, brakes, or other mechanism or device of a vehicle while the same is at rest and unattended, nor shall any person set in motion any vehicle while the same is at rest and unattended.”
- Steven jumps onto the hood of his neighbor’s new sports car and dents it while jumping up and down.
- Upset at her boyfriend, Jennifer climbs into his car and tries scratching and damaging the vehicle’s radio.
- Jose sneaks into a rival gang member’s car and fools with its brakes and gearshift.
Luckily, there are several legal defenses that a person can raise if accused of a crime under this section. These include showing that an accused party:
- Had no intent to commit any malicious mischief;
- Acted with a vehicle owner’s consent; and,
- Was falsely arrested.
As a misdemeanor, the crime of malicious mischief to a vehicle is punishable by:
- Imprisonment in a county jail for up to six months; and/or,
- A fine of up to $1,000.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1.The Legal Definition of Malicious Mischief to a Vehicle
- 2. Legal Defenses to VC 10853 Violations
- 3. Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing
- 4. Related Offenses
1. The Legal Definition of Malicious Mischief to a Vehicle
Vehicle Code 10853 states that it is a crime for a person to commit malicious mischief to a vehicle. Under this code section, a person can commit malicious mischief in one of two ways.
First, a person commits malicious mischief if:
- He climbs into or upon a car while it is in motion or at rest; and,
- He does so with the intent to commit malicious mischief.1
Second, a person can also commit malicious mischief to a vehicle if:
- He enters a car and attempts to manipulate its levers, starting mechanism, brakes, or any other mechanism or device of the vehicle; and,
- He does so with the intent to commit malicious mischief.2
California law states that “malicious mischief” is when a person defaces, damages, or destroys the property of another without consent.3
Vehicle Code 10853 applies to vehicles and also items attached to vehicles, including license plates, hood ornaments, and mirrors.4 So, for example, a person is guilty of malicious mischief if he attempts to damage or defaces a car’s license plate.
2. Legal Defenses
A person accused under 10853 VC can challenge the accusation by raising a legal defense. A good defense can often get a charge reduced or even dismissed. Please note, though, that it is critical for an accused to hire an attorney to get the most effective defense.
Three common defenses are:
- No intent;
- Owner’s consent; and/or,
- Police arrested the wrong person.
2.1. No Intent
Recall that the main element within a VC 10853 charge is that a person must act with the specific intent to commit malicious mischief. This means he must specifically intend to deface, damage, or destroy another person’s vehicle, or a device or mechanism inside it.
If a person damages, or in someway defaces a car, but did so without this specific intent, he would have a valid legal defense to any charges. This defense is often raised by a defendant that accidentally damages another person’s vehicle.
2.2. Owner’s Consent
Malicious mischief is committed when a person defaces, damages, or destroys the property of another without consent. A valid legal defense, therefore, is to show that a defendant had the car owner’s consent to damage or disrupt the vehicle.
It is hard to imagine that a car owner would allow a person to injure his vehicle. But, the situation sometimes occurs when a person owns a car in poor or horrible condition.
2.3. Police Arrested the Wrong Person
Parties that commit malicious mischief to a vehicle often do so at night. They also commit the crime quickly. Therefore, it is usually very difficult for eyewitnesses (if any) to recognize who committed the crime. This can lead to false arrests and misidentifications of offenders. If a prosecutor cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is the person who caused malicious mischief, then the crime should be dismissed.
3. Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing
Under Vehicle Code 10853 VC, malicious mischief is a misdemeanor offense.5
As such, it is punishable by:
- Imprisonment in the county jail for up to six months; and/or,
- A fine of up to $1,000.6
In lieu of imprisonment, a judge has the discretion to impose misdemeanor probation, or “summary” or “informal” probation.
4. Related Offenses
There are three crimes related to malicious mischief to a vehicle. These are:
- Vandalism – PC 594;
- Auto burglary – PC 459; and,
- Driving or taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent – VC 10851
4.1. Vandalism – PC 594
Penal Code 594 PC is California’s vandalism and graffiti law. The law prohibits maliciously doing any of the following things to someone else’s property:
- Defacing it with graffiti or other written material;
- Damaging it; or,
- Destroying it.7
The penalties for California vandalism charges generally depend on the dollar value of the property damage that was done.
If the damage is worth $400 or more, vandalism is a wobbler offense, meaning it can be charged as either a California misdemeanor or a felony. If charged as a felony, the penalties for vandalism may include:
- A jail sentence of between one and three years; and/or,
- A fine of up to $10,000, or even more if the damage is very extensive.8
If the damage in a vandalism case is worth less than $400, the crime is charged as a misdemeanor. As such, it is punishable by:
- Up to one year in county jail; and/or,
- A maximum fine of $1,000.9
4.2. Auto Burglary – PC 459
In California, the crime of auto burglary, per Penal Code 459, takes place when someone enters a locked automobile or its trunk, with the intent to either:
- Steal the car;
- Steal property contained in the car; or,
- Commit any other California felony inside the vehicle.10
California auto burglary is a form of so-called “second-degree” burglary.11
Second-degree burglary (including auto burglary, per PC 459) is a wobbler, meaning it can get charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
If charged as a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty is imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year.12
If charged as a felony, the maximum jail sentence is three years.13
4.3. Driving or Taking a Vehicle Without the Owner’s Consent – VC 10851
California Vehicle Code 10851 VC makes it a crime for a person to drive or take a vehicle without the owner’s consent. This crime is sometimes referred to as “joyriding.”
A prosecutor must prove three elements to show that a person is guilty under Vehicle Code 10851. These include proving that:
- The defendant drove or took someone else’s vehicle;
- The vehicle’s owner did not consent to the driving or taking; and,
- The defendant acted with the intent to deny the vehicle’s owner of possession of the vehicle for any period of time.14
Under VC 10851, the determination as to whether a defendant had “the intent to deny” is based upon the specific facts of a case.
Under Vehicle Code 10851 VC, the crime of unlawfully taking or driving a car is a wobbler offense. This means it can be punished as either a California misdemeanor or a felony.
If charged as a misdemeanor, the crime is punishable by:
- Imprisonment in a county jail for up to one year; and/or,
- A fine of up to $5,000.15
If charged as a felony, the crime is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for a term of:
- 16 months;
- Two years; or,
- Three years.16
These penalties increase if an offender:
- Drives or takes an ambulance, police vehicle, or fire department vehicle17; or,
- Has one or more prior felony convictions of either joyriding or felony grand theft18.
Contact us for help…
If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime per Vehicle Code 10853, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 by phone or on social media.
(For similar accusations or charges in Nevada, please see our page on Nevada “Vandalism & Malicious Destruction of Property” Laws.)
- California Vehicle Code 10853 VC.
- See same.
- See, for example, California Penal Code 594 PC.
- People v. McConahay (1949) 90 Cal. App. 2d 596.
- California Vehicle Code 40000.9 VC.
- California Penal Code 19 PC.
- California Penal Code 594 PC.
- See same.
- See same.
- California Penal Code 459 PC.
- Penal Code 460 PC.
- Penal Code 461 PC.
- See same.
- California Vehicle Code 10851(a) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 10851(a) VC.
- See same.
- California Vehicle Code 10851(b) VC. Note that in these cases a prosecutor, to get a conviction, must prove that the defendant knew a vehicle was an ambulance, a police vehicle, or a fire department vehicle.
- California Vehicle Code 10851 VC.