California Penal Code 591.5 PC makes it a crime for a person:
- Maliciously to damage or obstruct a communication device, and,
- To do so with the intent to prevent a person from using the device to seek help.
(Note that damaging a phone, electrical or utility line for any reason may also be charged as a crime under Penal Code 591 PC.)
Examples of illegal acts under Penal Code 591.5 include:
- During a heated argument, Mark throws his wife's cell phone in a drawer after she tries to use it to call the police.
- Jennifer is about to use her cell phone to report that her husband is drunk and disorderly, but the husband takes the phone and smashes it with a hammer.
- Debbie breaks her own cell phone after a pick-pocket victim asks to use it to get help.
Luckily, there are several legal defenses that a person can raise if accused of a crime under Penal Code 591.5. These include showing that an accused party:
- Acted without malice;
- Had no intent to prevent help; and,
- Was falsely accused.
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 $1,000.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1.The Legal Definition of Damaging a Communication Device with the Intent to Prevent Help
- 2. Legal Defenses to PC 591.5 Violations
- 3. Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing
- 4. Related Offenses
1. The Legal Definition of Damaging a Communication Device with the Intent to Prevent Help
A prosecutor must prove three elements in order to successfully convict a person of damaging a communication device with the intent to prevent hep. These elements are:
- The defendant removed, injured, destroyed, damaged, or obstructed the use of any wireless communication device;
- The defendant did so “maliciously;” and,
- In interfering with the device, the defendant intended to prevent a person from asking for help or notifying law enforcement of a crime.1
California law states that “maliciously” means an act done:
- With a wish to annoy or injure someone: or,
- With an intent to do a wrongful act.2
Some types of communication devices that get damaged in PC 591.5 cases include:
- Cell phones,
- Beepers, and
- Wireless land lines.
2. Legal Defenses
A person accused under Penal Code 591.5 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 to PC 591.5 accusations are:
- No Malice;
- No Intent to Prevent Help,
- Falsely Accused.
2.1. No Malice
A person must act “maliciously” to be convicted of a crime under Penal Code 591.5. It is a valid defense, therefore, if a defendant shows that he did not act with malice. This means the defendant would have to show that, even though he may have damaged a cell phone, he did not specifically intent to do so. For example, it is possible that an accused destroyed a cell phone by accident.
2.2. No Intent to Prevent Help
Recall that a main element within a PC 591.5 charge is that a person must act with the specific intent to either:
- Prevent a person from asking for help; or,
- Notifying law enforcement of a crime.
Thus, it is a defense for an accused to show that he did not act with this intent. For example, a defendant could argue that, while he did damage a person's phone, the person was not using the device to seek help or to contact the police.
2.3. Falsely Accused
Unfortunately, it is not at all uncommon for people to get prosecuted based on false allegations. Jealousy… revenge… anger… attempts to cover up one's own criminal involvement… these are just a few of the reasons why someone may falsely accuse an innocent person of a crime. False allegations are especially common in California domestic violence cases. Thus, it is always a defense for a defendant to say that a party falsely accused him of violating Penal Code 591.5.
3. Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing
A person that damages a communication device with the intent to prevent help is guilty of a misdemeanor.3
A misdemeanor committed under Penal Code 591.5 is punishable by:
- Imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year; and/or,
- A fine of up to $1,000.4
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 an offense under California Penal Code 591.5. These are:
- Vandalism – PC 594;
- Domestic battery – PC 243(e)(1); and,
- Corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant – PC 273.5
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.5
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.6
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 $1,000.7
4.2. Domestic Battery – PC 243(e)(1)
The legal definition of domestic battery is any willful and unlawful touching that is harmful or offensive—and is committed against:
- The defendant's spouse or former spouse,
- The defendant's cohabitant or former cohabitant,
- The defendant's fiancé(e) or former fiancé(e),
- A person with whom the defendant has or used to have a dating relationship, or
- The father or mother of the defendant's child.8
A defendant can be convicted of domestic battery (sometimes known as “spousal battery”) even if the “victim” is not injured in any way. All that's required is that the defendant use “force” or “violence” against him/her.9
Domestic battery is a misdemeanor under California law.10
The potential penalties include:
- A fine of up to $2,000, and/or
- Imprisonment in the county jail for up to 1 year.11
4.3. Corporal Injury on a Spouse or Cohabitant – PC 273.5
“Corporal injury” means any physical injury, whether serious or minor.13
Corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant is a wobbler offense, meaning it can be charged as either a California misdemeanor or a felony. The decision as to whether a prosecutor charges it as a misdemeanor or a felony depends on:
- The facts of the case, and
- The defendant's criminal history (if any).
A misdemeanor charge, with no prior convictions of the defendant, is punishable by:
- Imprisonment in the county jail for up to one years; and/or,
- A fine of up to $6,000.14
A felony charge, with no prior convictions of the defendant, is punishable by:
- 2, 3 or 4 years in a California state prison: and/or,
- A fine of up to $6,000.15
Were you accused of damaging a communication device with the intent to prevent help in California? Call us for help…
If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime, under Penal Code 591.5, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LAWFIRM.
California Penal Code 591.5 PC.
California Penal Code 591.5 PC.
California Penal Code 18.5 PC.
California Penal Code 594 PC.
Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instruction (“CALCRIM”) 841.
Penal Code 242 PC.
Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC.
California Penal Code 273.5 PC.
Penal Code 273.5(d).
Penal Code 273.5(a).