California Penal Code 591 PC makes it a crime to maliciously disconnect, remove, injure or obstruct wires for telephone, cable or electrical service, or any equipment connected to those wires.1
A more severe crime than the related offense of Penal Code 594 PC vandalism, damaging phone or electrical lines is often charged against people who cut phone lines or damage phone equipment during episodes of domestic violence or while committing other crimes like burglary. Note that doing so to prevent a person from receiving help can trigger a violation of a related section, Penal Code 591.5 PC.
The legal definition of cutting or damaging wires
A person may be guilty of cutting phone, electrical or utility lines under Penal Code 591 if s/he
- Takes down, removes, injures, disconnects, cuts or obstructs,
- A telegraph, telephone, cable television or electrical line, or any apparatus connected with such a line,
- Unlawfully and maliciously.2
You can also be charged with obstructing or cutting electrical or telephone lines if you maliciously make an unauthorized connection with an electrical line (but not with a telegraph, telephone or cable TV line).3
Example: Alexandra breaks into a house at night while the owners are sleeping, hoping to steal some jewelry and expensive silverware. The first thing she does after getting inside is cut the telephone wire so that the homeowners cannot call 911.
In addition to Penal Code 459 PC burglary charges, Alexandra may face charges for Penal Code 591 PC cutting a telephone line.
Example: Randy is in the middle of a nasty divorce from his wife. He is convinced that she is telling lies about him to their friends and relatives. To prove it, he decides to try to tap her phone secretly.
Randy has learned how to tap a phone on the internet but has never done it before. He ends up accidentally damaging the phone line so it doesn't work at all.
In addition to attempted Penal Code 631 PC wiretapping, Randy is guilty of PC 591 damaging a phone line.
“Maliciously” means that you intended to injure another person or do a wrongful act.4 If you did not act maliciously, then you are not guilty of the crime of damaging phone or electrical lines.
Example: Will's cable TV service is not working.
He thinks the problem might lie with the wires that run outside of his house. He tries to fix the wires himself but ends up accidentally damaging them and cutting off cable service to his house and the houses of several neighbors.
Will is not guilty of damaging cable lines under PC 591 because he did not act maliciously.
According to West Covina criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse5:
“California courts have made it clear that PC 591 doesn't just apply to damaging or cutting wires—it also applies to any acts that damage or disable phone or electrical equipment that is connected to or served by those wires.”
Example: Michael is having a fight with his estranged wife. He hits her in the face, committing the crime of Penal Code 243e1 - domestic battery.
Michael's wife attempts to call her mother on a cordless phone. Michael knocks the phone out of her hand and removes the battery from it so she can no longer use it.
Even though Michael did not damage any wires and the cordless phone was not connected to any wires, he is still guilty of damaging telephone wires or equipment under Penal Code 591 PC.6
Penalties for damaging electrical or telephone wires
Cutting electrical, telephone or cable lines is what is known as a “wobbler” in California law.7
- The exact nature of the allegations (amount of damage done, alleged motive, etc.); and
- The defendant's criminal history.
Damaging phone or electrical wires as a misdemeanor carries the following penalties:
- Misdemeanor (summary) probation;
- Up to one (1) year in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).8
When Penal Code 591 PC is charged as a felony, it carries the following penalties:
- Felony (formal) probation;
- Sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years served in the county jail under California's realignment program; and/or
- A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).9
Legal defenses against Penal Code 591 PC charges
As we discussed above, you are not guilty of this offense if you did not act maliciously—that is, with an intent to cause harm or injury.10 Damaging or cutting utility lines by accident, no matter how negligent you were, cannot support a conviction under California Penal Code 591.
Call us for help…
For questions about the crime of Penal Code 591 PC damaging utility, electrical or telephone lines, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
1 Penal Code 591 PC – Telegraph, telephone, cable television or electric lines. (“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).”)
4 Penal Code 7 PC – Words and phrases. (“4. The words “malice” and “maliciously” [including as it is used in California's law against damaging or cutting electrical or telephone lines] import a wish to vex, annoy, or injure another person, or an intent to do a wrongful act, established either by proof or presumption of law.”)
5 Our West Covina criminal defense attorneys handle the gamut of felony and misdemeanor cases and represent clients at courthouses throughout the Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County court systems
6 Based on People v. Tafoya (2001) 92 Cal.App.4th 220, 222. (“Section 591 is in the disjunctive; it makes it a crime to injure or obstruct either a telephone line “or appurtenances or apparatus connected therewith ....” (Italics added.) This necessarily means it is a crime to injure or obstruct “appurtenances or apparatus” connected to a telephone line, regardless of whether the defendant injures or obstructs the telephone line itself.”)
7 Penal Code 591 PC – Telegraph, telephone, cable television or electric lines, endnote 1 above.