Welcome to Beerup Law
Ruth Beerup is a St. Charles criminal defense attorney who represents clients accused of property crimes in every jurisdiction in the St. Louis area. She has more than 25 years of experience and is known for being a talented negotiator and a strong advocate for her client's rights. You can call her at 636-940-1111 to discuss your case, free of charge and at no obligation.
Missouri Property Damage Laws
Missouri statutes provide for two degrees of property damage offenses, 1st (RSMo 569.100) and 2nd (RSMo 569.120). The statutes also have a provision for institutional vandalism (RSMo 574.085), and most municipalities will have property damage ordinance codes. Property damage can therefore be charged as anything from a municipal ordinance violation to a class B felony.
Municipal Ordinance Violation Property Damage
Municipal ordinances are the rules and codes passed by each individual city. Generally, ordinance violations are considered to be of lesser severity than a misdemeanor. They can be punished with jail time, but this is rare. Most often, they carry a relatively small fine. Even though the punishment is light, you still might want to hire a lawyer for a municipal ordinance property damage charge. The lawyer can negotiate with the prosecutor for an amendment to a lesser charge like jaywalking or littering. Keeping your record clean is not a bad idea; you never know when a property crime conviction can affect your prospects.
Most acts of vandalism in Missouri will be charged as property damage, but there is a statute (RSMo 574.085) that creates a special category of institutional vandalism. Generally, any vandalism to public property or to property belonging to a religious organization is considered institutional vandalism. It is a class A misdemeanor unless the damage is over $750, in which case it is a class E felony. If the damage is over $5000, it is a class D felony.
Missouri 2nd Degree Property Damage
In Missouri, property damage 2nd degree (RSMo 569.120) occurs when someone knowingly damages the property of another or damages property to defraud an insurer. Any amount of damage under $750 qualifies. It is a class B misdemeanor unless the victim was intentionally targeted because they are a law enforcement officer or a close relative of a law enforcement officer.
Missouri 1st Degree Property Damage
In Missouri, property damage is 1st degree (RSMo 569.100) if the amount of damage is $750 or more. It is a class E felony unless the victim was intentionally targeted because they are a law enforcement officer or a close relative of a law enforcement officer. In this case, it is a class D felony.
The statute has a special subdivision for damage caused by breaking into a motor vehicle to commit a theft. Property damage committed in this manner is a class D felony for a first offense and a class B felony for subsequent offenses. A class B felony in Missouri carries a sentence of 5-15 years in prison, so this is a very serious matter.
The state must show that the damage was $750 or more, as explained by the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District in State v. Robertson 262 S.W. 3d 285. As you might suspect, property owners' estimates of the value of damaged property can sometimes be inaccurate, and a defense attorney can challenge the valuation if necessary.
Elements of Missouri Property Damage
Both Missouri property damage statutes state that a person commits the offense of property damage if that person knowingly damages the property of another or damages property for the purpose of defrauding an insurer.
Knowingly is defined at RSMo 562.016.3(1). A person acts knowingly when they are aware of the nature of their conduct or aware that their conduct is practically certain to cause a specific result. So, property damage caused as the result of an accident cannot be charged as a crime per se. Intoxication is not a defense, even if you are drunk or high enough to have limited capacity.
It is difficult to prove what another person knows, so the standard is held to be sufficient evidence to reasonably conclude that someone knows what they are doing. If a police officer reasonably thinks that you knowingly damaged property, they can arrest you. If the prosecutor agrees, they can charge you. And, if you go to trial, per State v. Huff 825 S.W. 2d 335, the court or jury is free to believe or disbelieve that you knew what you were doing based on a reasonable assessment of the evidence.
Showing that property is “of another” is usually straightforward, but there are some complications. For example, you may own property, but if anyone else has a possessory or proprietary interest in that property, you cannot legally damage that property without their permission. This often comes up in separations or divorces regarding the jointly held property. You can also be charged with damaging your own property when you do so to defraud an insurer.
Defenses to Missouri Property Damage Charges
Defense of Privilege
Certain officials are granted the right to damage property in the lawful execution of their duties, such as a firefighter or police officer damaging a structure to gain entry. It may seem hard to imagine a case where someone would need to assert this privilege in court, but in State v. Hunt 451 S.W. 3d 251, a St. Charles County Drug Task Force officer was convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison for breaking a door to effect entry to a trailer where methamphetamine was being manufactured. The conviction was overturned on appeal in part because of the defense of privilege.
Claim of Right
A claim of right is an assertion that you had reasonable grounds to believe that you had a legal right to damage the property. A good example of this claim is shown in a stealing case, State v. McPike 514 S.W. 3d 86. McPike was loading furniture he saw behind a store near a dumpster into his vehicle when the store manager came outside and told him it was not junk. McPike unloaded the furniture and left. The manager called the police, and McPike was charged with C felony stealing. On appeal, McPike's attorney was able to show that discarded furniture is often left at this location for the taking and that McPike should have an opportunity to argue to a jury that he had a reasonable belief that he had a right to take the furniture.
It is the responsibility of the defendant to bring forth a claim of right; it is not automatically considered in a trial. Furthermore, the claim must be supported by something tangible. In the McPike case, this was accomplished by testimony from the manager that discarded furniture was sometimes placed at that location by the dumpster and pictures submitted to that effect.
Hire a Lawyer!
Your best defense against a property damage charge is to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney who knows what they are doing. Keep your record clean, and don't let a property damage charge take away opportunities.