The crime of “criminal mischief” may be one of the least-understood crimes that still appears most often in local news reports. Part of the problem is with its use of the word “mischief.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines “mischief” as “behavior, especially a child's, that is slightly bad but is not intended to cause serious harm or damage,” and when many of us use the word in everyday life, that's likely what we mean.
The origins of the word “mischief,” however, are a bit more sinister. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it derives from two French words from about the year 1300: “mes,” meaning “badly,” and “chever,” meaning “to happen, come to a head.” So roughly 800 years ago, “mischief” meant “bad stuff happening,” which is how it's used today in New Jersey's criminal mischief statute.
Criminal Mischief Covers a Wide Range of Actions
In New Jersey, the crime of criminal mischief involves tampering with or damaging someone else's property under a wide range of circumstances. The damage can be done on purpose, as with vandalism; or it can be done recklessly or negligently, as might happen if fireworks happen to ignite someone else's tool shed. Criminal mischief can be a third-degree crime, a fourth-degree crime, or a petty crime, depending on the amount of damage done. (Third-degree being the most serious of those.) But if criminal mischief causes someone's death, it rises to a crime in the second degree.
A Conviction of Criminal Mischief Can Cost You
The penalties for a conviction of criminal mischief can be severe. A conviction of second-degree criminal mischief can lead to a sentence of 5 to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000. A third-degree criminal mischief conviction can result in 3 to 5 years in prison and up to a $15,000 fine. And being convicted of fourth-degree criminal mischief can land you in jail for up to 18 months, cost you up to $10,000 in fines, and leave you with a felony record.
Even for the least-serious criminal mischief conviction you can spend up to 6 months in jail and have to pay a fine of up to $1000.
Additional Requirements Where Property is Defaced
Criminal mischief convictions based on graffiti can also result in you having to pay to restore the defaced property and spending 20 days in mandatory community service.
Criminal Mischief is Nothing to Laugh About
If you've been charged with any type of criminal mischief in New Jersey, you need to take it seriously. Depending on the damage that was done and whether anyone was injured or killed as a result, you could be facing some serious jail time and fines that could follow you for years. You should not face these kinds of charges alone; you need the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands the law, the New Jersey legal system, and how to protect your rights.
Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Criminal Defense Team have years of experience representing defendants charged with criminal mischief and a wide range of other crimes in New Jersey. They can help you understand your situation and the charges against you, can negotiate on your behalf with prosecutors, and, where necessary, will forcefully and effectively represent you at trial.