Damaging a Communication Device to Prevent Help - Penal Code 591.5 PC
It is a crime in California to deliberately damage or obstruct the use of an electronic communications device to prevent someone from receiving help in an emergency.
This crime, described in Penal Code 591.5 PC, is commonly referred to as "damaging a cell phone to prevent help," but the law itself covers any other form of device that could be used to call for help, such as wireless landlines and iPads.
This law is frequently connected with domestic violence laws. It can be violated together with the common charges of domestic battery under California Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC, corporal injury on a spouse under Penal Code 273.5 PC. 273.5), and elder abuse under Penal Code 368 PC.
The closely related crime for PC 591.5 is damaging a phone or electrical line for any reason as defined under Penal Code 591 PC. To convict someone of damaging a communication device to prevent help, the prosecutor has to prove all the elements of the crime.
These include showing, beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant maliciously removed, injured, destroyed, damaged, or obstructed the use of any wireless communication device, and they intended to prevent someone from asking for help or notifying law enforcement of a crime.
If you're convicted of this misdemeanor crime, you could face up to a year in jail and up to $1000 in fines. Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys will review this topic further below.
Overview of Penal Code 591.5 PC
California Penal Code 591.5 PC states that you may not willfully and maliciously break or interfere with using a cell phone or any other wireless communications device to hinder someone from seeking help or reporting a crime in progress.
While this law is primarily intended to provide extra legal protection in domestic violence situations, it is written broadly enough to cover almost every instance obstructing someone from calling for help.
You don't have to physically damage the person's phone to be guilty of this crime—you only have to prevent them from using it in some way.
Additionally, while cell phones are the most common devices used in these situations, the law covers any other type of wireless device that may be used to summon help, including two-way radios, tablets, and even "panic button" devices for medical emergencies.
Examples of Interfering with Cellphones or Other Wireless Devices
- Someone physically attacks their significant other (domestic battery), smashes her cell phone, or locks it up to keep her from calling the police;
- A mugger takes their victim's cell phone to keep them from reporting the crime;
- An elderly or disabled person falls or has a medical emergency, and the caregiver removes their Life call button out of reach to keep them from signaling for help;
- A home invader cuts utility lines to disrupt the phone signal before entering the home and victimizing the residents.
What Are the Penalties for Penal Code 591.5?
Intentionally damaging or obstructing a cell phone for the purpose of preventing help is a misdemeanor in California. If you're convicted, the maximum penalty is a fine of $1000 and one year in county jail. In some cases, the sentence may be reduced to summary probation.
Rather than sentencing a defendant to serve jail time, the judge has the discretion to impose misdemeanor probation, often called summary or informal probation.
What Are the Related Crimes?
Damaging or obstructing a cellphone often accompanies additional charges depending on the circumstances. These may include, but are not limited to:
- Domestic Battery (Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC): the willful use of force or violence against a spouse, significant other, cohabitant, et al. If your interference with the victim's cellphone occurs during domestic violence, you may face domestic battery charges, as well;
- Corporal Injury to a Spouse/Cohabitant (Penal Code 273.5 PC): inflicting physical injury on a significant other—a more severe form of domestic violence accompanied by stronger penalties than domestic battery;
- Vandalism (Penal Code 594 PC): willfully damaging or destroying someone else's property. If you damaged the cellphone while obstructing its use, you could also be charged with vandalism. Vandalism may also be charged instead of PC 591.5 if prosecutors cannot prove that you intended to prevent the victim from calling for help;
- Elder Abuse (Penal Code 368 PC): if the alleged victim of phone obstruction was over age 65 and other forms of violence/abuse were involved, you may face elder abuse charges in addition to damaging/obstructing the cellphone.
What are the Common Defenses?
As noted above, due to the nature of this crime, prosecutors must effectively prove three things to procure a conviction:
- You damaged the victim's phone (or another communication device) or otherwise prevented them from using it;
- You did it willfully and with malicious intent; and
- You did it to keep the victim from obtaining help or reporting a crime.
Thus, the most effective legal defenses for PC 591.5 will attempt to disprove one or more of these facts. They are specifically listed below.
You acted without malice. In other words, you damaged the phone accidentally or otherwise did not realize you were preventing the person in question from using the phone. This means acknowledging you did damage the cell phone, but there was malice involved in the act.
You had no intention of preventing the person from getting help. Perhaps you damaged the phone purposely, for example (vandalism), but you did not do so to keep the person from communicating for help.
Recall from the elements of the crime that the prosecution must show you intentionally acted to prevent the victim from getting help. Perhaps we could argue they were not using the device to ask for help or contact the police.
You were falsely accused. If a spouse or domestic partner falsely accuses you of domestic violence, for example, they might have damaged their phone to make it look like you tried to stop them.
Often, people are wrongfully arrested and charged with domestic violence based on false allegations from someone with other motives, such as anger, jealousy, or in an attempt to cover up their unlawful conduct.
In other words, innocent people are sometimes charged with California domestic violence cases and allegedly damaging a cell phone to prevent them from calling the police for help.
If you were accused of violating Penal Code 591.5 PC, reach out to us to review the details and legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP is a Los Angeles-based criminal defense law firm. You can contact us for an initial consultation by calling (877) 781-1570 or filling out our contact form.