California’s Damaging Phone or Electrical Line Laws Penal Code 591

Definition of damaging phone or electrical lines

California’s damaging a phone or electrical line law is defined under Penal Code 591. The statute makes it illegal to purposely and maliciously damage, obstruct, remove, disconnect, or otherwise injure wires, cables, or any equipment that is used for a telephone, cable, or electric service.

What does it mean to violate Penal Code 591 PC?

An individual is guilty of violating this law if they:

  • Maliciously and illegally/unlawfully,
  • Took down, cut, removed, disconnected, obstructed, or injured,
  • A telephone line, telegraph, cable service, electric lines, or other related equipment.

Examples:

  • Cutting a neighbor’s cable line out of spite or revenge;
  • Removing batteries from a portable phone in an attempt to prevent someone else from using it;
  • Damaging the phone lines with criminal intent, i.e. in order to commit assault, battery, abuse, burglary, murder, or some other crime.

Similar Offenses

California’s Penal Code 631 wiretapping;

It’s considered a crime to wiretap or tap someone’s telephone line without their permission unless you are part of law enforcement.

California’s Penal Code 594 vandalism;

This law makes it a crime to willfully and maliciously deface another person’s property with graffiti, markings, or otherwise damaging or destroying said property.  

Associated/Related Offenses

California’s Penal Code 646.9 stalking;

Constantly following, harassing, and/or threatening someone else to the extent that they fear for their safety and/or the safety of their family members is prohibited under this statute.

California’s Harassment Laws;

General/Simple Harassment;

Also known as basic harassment, California defines sexual harassment under its labor laws which separate it into the following sections:

Quid Pro Quo; situations where one’s employment depends on accepting the unwanted sexual advancements from the supervisor, hiring manager, or a higher up employee.

Hostile Work Environment; inappropriate and/or unwelcome sexual behavior/conduct at work which is severe or pervasive that creates a hostile work environment. The sexual behavior, advances, and misconduct does not have to be direct and can affect more than one employee. A hostile work environment can include non-sexual behavior as well, such as harassment or bullying of a fellow colleague based on their ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, or nationality.

California’s Penal Codes 422.55 Hate Crime Laws;

Hate crimes are defined as causing harm, threatening, or harassing another person simply because of their gender, race/ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, or disability. It can be a stand-alone crime or include sentencing enhancements depending on the specifics of the case and the defendant’s criminal history.

California’s Domestic Violence Laws;

There are many criminal offenses that are covered under California’s domestic violence statutes. The following are two examples of domestic violence offenses that are often associated with damaging a phone or electrical lines.

Domestic Battery, California Penal Code 243(e)(1);

This prohibits willfully and unlawfully touching another person in a harmful manner and the alleged victim is a current or former spouse, fiance, girlfriend, cohabitant, or the mother/father of your child.

Corporal Injury to a Spouse, California’s Penal Code 273.5;

A corporal injury is defined as purposely causing corporal injury, no matter how extreme or minor to another person.  Penal Code 273.5(a) is also referred to as spousal abuse, however, it covers more than just the spouse. Under this statute, it is a crime to intentionally inflict corporal injury on a current or former spouse, fiancee, girl/boyfriend, cohabitant, domestic partner, and/or the fellow parent to your child.

California Penal Code 459 Burglary;

It is a crime to enter a residence or commercial room or property with the intent to commit a theft or a felony while inside. Even if the felonious act or theft never took place, simply entering the property with criminal intent is enough to commit burglary.

The Prosecution

In order for the prosecution to prove the defendant committed the act of injuring a phone or electrical line under Penal Code 591, they must first prove the elements of the crime took place.  The government has to prove the following elements:

  • That the defendant willfully
  • Took down, obstructed, removed, injured, disconnected, or cut another person’s cable lines, telephone hard-line, telegraph, electrical lines, cordless telephone, or any other apparatus connected to these lines; and
  • the defendant committed these acts without express permission, unlawfully, and maliciously.

The defendant could also be charged with obstructing electrical or cable lines by making an illegal, malicious, and unauthorized connection.

Examples:

Kyle was driving through a residential neighborhood to figure out which homes he wanted to case. He stopped at an isolated house with neighbors over an acre away. He broke in and realized the owners were home asleep, so he cut the phone and internet lines to prevent them from contacting the authorities. He did not manage to get their cell phones because their bedroom door was locked. The owners managed to contact police and Kyle was arrested.  In this case, the prosecutor will likely charge him with violating Penal Code 591 for cutting the telephone and internet lines as well as Penal Code 459 residential burglary, which is a strike offense and a felony.

Lorena wanted to connect an illegal cable line from her home to her neighbor’s. The neighbor refused, but she decided to ignore them. She attempted to unlawfully connect a cable and internet line from their equipment to hers. Instead, Lorena managed to damage their cable lines and telephone/Wi-Fi connections.

The prosecutor can charge her with Penal Code 591, damaging phone, and cable lines. The offense can be increased to a felony if the amount of damage done to the multiple lines was extensive and/or if there was a significant amount of property damage.

Who Can Be Charged?

The examples below illustrate who can be charged with violating Penal Code 591, damaging the phone or electrical lines.

Spencer was angry that his landlord increased the rent, but refused to do any maintenance on the rental property. After weeks of complaining about electrical issues and roof damage with no response, he got angry enough to plan revenge. He decided to break into the landlord’s garage, vandalize the vehicle parked in it, and cut their electrical lines.

Spencer could be charged with cutting electrical lines under Penal Code 591. Furthermore, he could face additional charges of residential burglary under Penal Code 459 and violating Penal Code 594, vandalism.

Sarah was fighting with her 10-year-old daughter and began throwing things at her. Her daughter got scared and tried to grab the cordless telephone to call her grandma for help. Sarah got angrier and kicked her daughter, grabbed the phone and removed the batteries.

In addition to facing charges of child abuse, Sarah could face charges for disconnecting a telephone. Even though she simply removed the batteries, she did so with the purpose of preventing her abused daughter from calling for help.

The Legal Defense

Facing charges for violating California’s Penal Code 591, damaging a phone line or electrical lines, can be difficult to fight alone. An effective and aggressive criminal defense attorney will know the most common legal defenses to fight against these charges.

Did the defendant actually commit the elements of the crime?

It is important to understand if you did not commit the act maliciously, you are not guilty of damaging phone or electrical lines. Even if you are found negligent of cutting such lines, it does not necessarily elevate the conduct to a crime in violation of Penal Code 591.

Was it accidental?

You are not guilty of injuring a telephone or electrical lines if it was purely accidental. This means the act was not malicious in nature and you did not intend to break, cut, or damage any telephone or electrical lines.

Examples:

Esther was mowing her lawn and accidentally ran over some wires on the side of her house.  Those wires ended up damaging the phone and internet lines of her home and several of her neighbors.  She is not guilty of damaging phone lines as defined under Penal Code 591 because she did not commit the act maliciously or on purpose.

Frank was heading home from work and fell asleep at the wheel. His car ended up knocking down a neighborhood transformer which cut power for that area.  Frank got behind the wheel knowing full well how exhausted he was.  Even if he didn’t realize he would fall asleep behind the wheel, he could be held liable for negligence. However, he is not guilty of injuring electrical lines as defined under Penal Code 591 because he did not commit the act with malicious intent nor did he intend to damage any electrical equipment.

Penalties

PC 591 is a wobbler in California which means that it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony offense.  It all depends on the specifics of the case and the defendant’s criminal history. The consequences for violating California’s Penal Code 591, damaging a phone or electrical lines are as follows:

If convicted as a misdemeanor:

  • Summary (informal) probation,
  • Fines of up to one thousand dollars, and/or
  • Up to one year the county jail.

If convicted of a felony:

  • Formal (felony) probation,
  • Up to ten thousand dollars in fines, and/or
  • 16 months, 2 or 3 years in prison or up to 365 days in the county jail.

Additional consequences could include possible civil suits from the alleged victim. This means the defendant could face additional financial liability if they are sued in a civil case for punitive damages on top of covering the cost of repairs.

Penalties for Similar/Related Offenses

California’s Penal Code 631 wiretapping

If convicted as a misdemeanor:

  • Up to two thousand five hundred dollars in fines, and/or
  • Up to one year in the county jail.

If convicted of a felony:

  • Fines may increase to up to ten thousand dollars, and/or
  • 16 months, 2 or 3 years in prison or up to 365 days in the county jail.

California’s Penal Code 594 vandalism;

If the damage was under four hundred dollars it can be charged with a misdemeanor:

  • Up to one thousand dollars in fines, and/or
  • Up to one year in the county jail.

If the damage was between four hundred and ten thousand dollars it can be charged with a felony:

  • Up to ten thousand dollars in fines, and/or
  • One to three years in the county jail.

California’s Penal Code 646.9 stalking

If convicted as a misdemeanor:

  • Summary (informal) probation,
  • Fines up to one thousand dollars,
  • Up to one year in the county jail,
  • Counseling, and/or
  • Staying in a state-run hospital for mental illness, and/or
  • The judge will issue a restraining order on the alleged victim's behalf.

If convicted of a felony:

  • Formal probation,
  • Fines up to the one thousand dollars,
  • 16 months to 5 years in a California state penitentiary;
  • Up to 365 days in county jail;
  • Counseling, and/or
  • Sentenced to be confined in a state-run mental institution, and/or
  • The judge may issue a restraining order on the alleged victim's behalf, and
  • Potential registration as a sex offender under California’s Penal Code 290.

California’s Harassment Laws

Sexual and non-sexual harassment should be reported at your workplace and the employer must respond quickly.

If the employer responds and takes corrective action with the claim, the alleged victim cannot sue the employer. The victims can, however, sue their harassers.

If an employer does not respond properly to the claim, they could be held liable for the behavior by failing to address the issue. This means the alleged victim(s) could sue their employer for neglecting to take the necessary corrective action.

Penal Code 422.6 PC “stand-alone” hate crimes;

Misdemeanor:

  • Summary (informal) probation,
  • Fines of up to five thousand dollars,
  • Up to one year in the county jail, and/or
  • Four hundred hours of community service. 

The penalties listed under Penal Codes 422.7 and 422.75 are essentially penalty enhancements. The prosecutor can choose to elevate the offense to a felony.

Penal Code 422.7 PC misdemeanor and hate crime conviction:

If you are convicted of a misdemeanor and a hate crime, it raises the penalties to a wobbler. This means felony penalties could apply based on the specifics of the case and criminal history.

If charged with a felony:

  • Formal probation,
  • Up to ten thousand dollars in fines, and/or
  • 16 months, 2 or 3 years in a state penitentiary.

Penal Code 422.75 felony hate crime conviction;

  • An additional 1, 2, or 3 years in a state prison.

California’s Domestic Violence Laws;

Many of the penalties associated with these crimes do not include the possible civil suits and additional financial repercussions. For example, the alleged victim may be able to sue you and hold you responsible for any medical bills accrued as a result of the violent act(s).  It’s important to note that the judge may apply probationary conditions that could include short-term or long-term enrollment in anger management or abuse and battery treatment programs.

Domestic Battery, California Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC;

Misdemeanor:

  • Summary (informal) probation,
  • Fines up to two thousand dollars, and/or
  • Up to one year the county jail.

Corporal Injury to a Spouse, California’s Penal Code 273.5 PC;

Misdemeanor:

  • Fines up to six thousand dollars, and/or
  • Up to one year in the county jail.

Felony:

  • Up to six thousand dollars in fines, and
  • 2, 3, or 4 years in a California state penitentiary.

California Penal Code 459 PC Burglary

If convicted as second-degree burglary it’s a wobbler and can be charged as:

A misdemeanor:

  • Summary (informal) probation,
  • Up to one year in the county jail, and/or
  • Fines up to one thousand dollars.

If charged with second-degree felony burglary:

  • Felony (formal) probation,
  • 16 months, 2 or 3 years in the county jail,
  • Fines up to ten thousand dollars.

If convicted of the first-degree residential burglary, it is not a wobbler.  It is a felony:

  • Formal probation,
  • Fines up to ten thousand dollars, and/or
  • 2, 4, or 6 years in a California state penitentiary.
  • A strike under California’s Three Strikes Law.

We Can Help

If you or someone you know is facing charges of violating California’s Penal Code 591, damaging a phone or electrical line, it is highly recommended that you seek an experienced, knowledgeable, and reputable criminal defense lawyer. If you are located in the greater San Diego area, Orange County or Los Angeles, contact the Law Offices of Anna R. Yum.  As a former prosecutor, Attorney Yum can spot the legal issues and attack the weaknesses in the government’s case in order to strive in achieving the best possible outcome.  Don’t hesitate to contact a lawyer who will aggressively fight for your rights and your future.  Call 619-233-4433 for a free consultation or consult with our online agents today.

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