Halloween: Ghouls, Goblins, Pranksters or Felons?

As fall approaches, Tennesseans inevitably begin stockpiling sweets and carving pumpkins in anticipation of Halloween. Originally, the holiday derived from an ancient Celtic celebration that signified the end of harvest season and the beginning of winter—the bridge to the world of the dead.1 Today, Halloween is a period of festivities and costumes; however, a negative reputation has developed due to criminal activities, which are sometimes guised as pranks.

When Trick-or-Treaters begin to swarm your neighborhood, how do you distinguish a prank from a criminal act? The Tennessee Code Annotated (T.C.A.) provides insight to this dilemma. Tennessee’s statute on Vandalism, T.C.A. § 39-14-408(a), states that “[a]ny person who knowingly causes damage to or the destruction of any real or personal property of another… knowing that the person does not have the owner’s effective consent is guilty of an offense under this section.”

T.C.A. § 39-14-408(b)(1)(A)-(B) further states that a person commits a criminal act by “[d]estroying, polluting or contaminating property,2” or “[t]ampering with property and causing pecuniary loss or substantial inconvenience to the owner or a third person.”3 Under these criteria, vandalism in Tennessee encompasses many traditional Halloween pranks such as egging cars, spray painting property, and other similar acts.

Egging vehicles or houses is one of the most notorious Halloween pranks. Unless promptly addressed, a seemingly harmless egg is capable of significant and permanent damage to paint or property. The yolk and egg white are “extremely corrosive to paint surfaces on a vehicle, and can actually eat into the car’s surface4” removing layers of paint. Hence, repairs may cost between $100- $500 to repaint a door; $150- $750 to repaint a quarter panel; and, $200-$1,000 to repaint a hood.5 This begs the question, “where is the line drawn between a prank and a criminal offense?”

T.C.A. § 39-14-408(c) mandates that vandalism shall be punished as theft,6 valued under T.C.A. § 39-11-106(a)(36),7 and then punished under T.C.A §§ 39-14-105(a)(1)-(6) according to the value of damages incurred, as explained below. A prank may appear lighthearted until one is arrested for even the lowest grade of vandalism, a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable up to 11 months and 29 days in jail, a fine of up to $2,500, or both, plus court costs.8

The hierarchy of punishments for vandalism is as follows:

  1. Class A misdemeanor if the value of the damage is $500 or less;
  2. Class E felony if the value of the damage is more than $500 but less than $1,000;
  3. Class D felony if the value of the damage is $1,000 or more but less than $10,000;
  4. Class C felony if the value of the damage is $10,000 or more but less than $60,000;
  5. Class B felony if the value of the damage is $60,000 or more but less than $250,000); and,
  6. Class A felony if the value of the damage is $250,000 or more.9

Therefore, before committing a prank, and potentially vandalism, be aware of the ramifications and repercussions associated with such actions. Since “multiple criminal acts which are charged in a single count” are “aggregated to establish value,” then a carton of eggs could easily result in a felony charge if used improperly against an expensively painted car or structure.10 Jail sentences and expensive fines are not worth the fleeting joy of blemishing your neighbor’s new car or other property.

Knoxville Criminal Defense Lawyers

Vandalism can have a serious impact on your finances, freedom, and permanent criminal record. If you have been charged with vandalism or related criminal charges, it is important to obtain legal representation immediately in order to ensure your rights are protected and you are properly defended. At Oberman & Rice, we believe “Your Future is Our Present Concern®.”  We are committed to representing our clients with unparalleled attention and communication – 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.

Call Oberman & Rice at (865) 249-7200 or fill out our online contact form to speak with our Knoxville criminal defense attorneys.

The author, Steve Oberman, would also like to recognize and thank Matt Wayne, a second year law student at the University of Tennessee College of Law, for his contributions in researching and editing this article.

1 http://www.history.com/topics/halloween.
2 Tenn. Code. Ann. § 39-14-408(b)(1)(A).
3 Tenn. Code. Ann. § 39-14-408(b)(1)(B).
4 http://www.carprousa.com/what-to-do-if-your-car-gets-egged-on-halloween-car-pro-news.
5 http://www.carsdirect.com/car-maintenance/car-paint-repair-average-costs-for-common-repairs.
6 Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-14-408(c) (stating that “[a]cts of vandalism are to be… punished as theft under (T.C.A.) § 39-14-105.”). Id.
7 Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 39-11-106(a)(36)(A)-(D) (stating the value of the property or service is the fair market value at the “time and place of the offense”, or if that value is not ascertainable, then the value will be the cost of replacement in reasonable time). Id.
8 See Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-111(2)(e)(1).
9 See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 39-14-105(a)(1)-(6).
10 Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-14-105(b)(2).