Damaging phone, electrical, or utility lines under California Penal Code section 591 is a crime that must be committed in a malicious manner in order for there to be a conviction. This crime is a more serious offense than the crime of vandalism Penal Code section 594, which is of a similar nature. The reason that the act of maliciously damaging phone, electrical or utility lines is considered a serious offense worthy of stringent sentences upon conviction, is that now more than ever we rely heavily on our electricity and our phones to connect and communicate with one another on a day to day basis. Especially now during the age of internet communication, we use them at home and at the workplace. We use them for business and we use them for pleasure. We also need phone and electricity lines to make sure that are able to contact emergency response services, if necessary. If you disconnect, remove, injure, or obstruct wires for telephone or cables service, you can be charged and convicted of this crime. Oftentimes the offense of a violation of Penal Code section 591 is charged in combination with other offenses such as domestic violence or burglary.
In order for a person to be found guilty of having committed the crime of damaging phone, electrical or utility lines under Penal Code section 591, the prosecution must prove the following elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
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Elements of Damaging Phone, Electrical or Utility Lines
- A person must have unlawfully and maliciously taken down, removed, injured, disconnected, cut or obstructed a line of telegraph, telephone, or cable television, or another line used to conduct electricity or any part thereof, or appurtenance or apparatus connected to it, or
- The person must have severed a line of telegraph, telephone or cable television, or another line used to conduct electricity, or
- The person made an unauthorized connection with a line, other than a telegraph, telephone or cable television line, used to conduct electricity or a part thereof, or appurtenance or apparatus connected to it.
Willfully - What does it mean for a person to commit an act willfully? It means that he or she did the act on purpose. What it does not mean, however, is that the person had the intention to break the law or hurt someone else. Example: Johnny and Mary Ann have been married for 10 years. After several years of unhappiness Mary Ann informed Johnny that she no longer wanted to continue the marriage and that she had filed for a divorce. Johnny was convinced that there was another man but Mary Ann assured him that there was not. He waited until she fell asleep and went outside to try to tap the phones to the house so that he could listen in on her conversations and find out who it was she was leaving him for. In the process, rather than successfully tapping the phones, he simply broke the cable lines. Johnny has committed a violation of Penal Code section 591 damaging phone, electrical or utility lines because he acted both willfully and intentionally. And this is true even as his intentions were not to damage the lines but rather to simply tamper with them and as result of his unlawful tampering with the phone lines damages ensued. Since he willfully committed the act of tampering, he can be found guilty of this crime.
Maliciously – What the Code means by "maliciously" is that the person intended to hurt someone else or to commit a wrongful act. If a person doesn’t act with such intent, he cannot be convicted of Penal Code section 591 damaging phone, electrical or utility lines. Example: Shawn is having trouble with his cable TV and he thinks that the issue might have something to do with the wires running through his backyard. When he tries to untangle them, he ends up causing damage not only to his wires, but to the wires that run to several of his neighbors' cable service. However, since Shawn never intended to hurt someone else or commit a wrongful act against them, the element of malice is missing and he cannot be guilty of damaging phone, electrical or utility lines pursuant to Penal Code section 591.
Penalties for Damaging Phone, Electrical, or Utility Lines
Damaging phone, electrical, or utility lines under California’s Penal Code section 591 is considered a wobbler crime. If a crime is considered a wobbler it means that the violation may be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony crime. The manner in which it is filed – misdemeanor or felony - is totally up to the discretion of the prosecution. The prosecutor, in making this determination, will look to the seriousness of the facts of the case, or lack thereof, and will take into consideration whether or not the defendant has a prior criminal history,
If a person is convicted of a misdemeanor violation of Penal Code section 591 damaging phone, electrical or utility lines, he or she can receive a maximum fine of $1,000 and/or a maximum of one year in county jail, as well as misdemeanor or summary probation.
If a person is convicted of a felony violation of Penal Code section 591 damaging phone, electrical or utility lines, he or she can receive either 16 months in county jail, two years in county jail, or three years in county jail under California’s realignment program, a maximum fine of $10,000, and the possibility of felony probation.
Defenses for Damaging Phone, Electrical, or Utility Lines Penal Code 591 PC
The offense of damaging phone, electrical or utility lines under Penal Code section 591 carries serious consequences. If you or someone that you know or love has been charged with this crime, it is crucial that you consult with an attorney who is knowledgeable and experienced in these types of matters. Attorney Leah Naparstek of the Criminal Defense Law Office of Leah Legal is very skilled at handling such cases. She is highly regarded as a tough yet compassionate defender who has a deep knowledge of the law.
Accident - The most common defense for these cases is that the incident was simply an accident. In order to be successfully convicted of a violation of penal code section 591 you must have acted willfully. If the incident in question was an accident then you did not act willfully therefore you did not commit a crime. Example: You are driving down the street when you hit a patch of ice. The ice causes your car to spin out uncontrollably. Your car subsequently hits a telephone pole causing some of the telephone wires to become entangled and to emit sparks. The police come and question you and you inform them that is was merely an accident. This situation is not a situation where you could be charged with a violation of Penal Code section 591 because even though you did cause damage to telephone wires, this was an accident and you did not act willfully.
Vandalism, Penal Code section 594 – Vandalism is a very severe crime wherein someone maliciously defaces someone else’s property, damaging it, or destroying it.
Domestic Violence, Penal Code section 243(e)(1) – Domestic violence is a misdemeanor crime of inflicting harm upon an intimate partner or cohabitant.
Burglary, Penal Code section 459 – Burglary is unlawfully entering a building with the intention to commit a crime once inside.