Stealing a road sign may seem like an innocuous prank, but it's hazardous. It might even seem like a rite of passage to some, like college students.
However, considering that road signage plays a vital role in keeping people safe, stealing a road sign in California is, in fact, a severe offense with substantial public safety risks and legal ramifications.
If you are accused of removing a road sign, you could face criminal charges under one or more California statutes, punishable by significant fines. If someone is hurt or killed as a result of your actions, you could even face jail time.
California Penal Code 602(f) PC makes stealing, altering, or posting advertisements or notices on roads and other public signs a misdemeanor.
PC 602(f) says that every person who commits the following is guilty of a misdemeanor offense, “Maliciously tears down, damages, mutilates, or destroys any sign, signboard, or notice placed upon or affixed to, any property belonging to the state, or any city, county, city and county, town, or village, or upon any property of any person, by the state or by an automobile association, which sign signboard, or notice is intended to indicate or designate a road or a highway or is intended to direct travelers from one point to another, or relates to fires, fire control, or any other matter involving the protection of the property.
Putting up, affixing, fastening, printing, or painting upon any property belonging to the state, or any city, county, town, or village, or dedicated to the public, or upon any property of any person without a license from the owner, any notice, advertisement, or designation of, or any name for any commodity, whether for sale or otherwise, or any picture, sign, or device intended to call attention to it.”
What Are the Public Safety Risks of Stealing Road Signs?
Road signs are indispensable elements of our transportation system. They serve essential functions such as controlling traffic, indicating speed limits, cautioning against potential hazards, and providing critical navigational directions.
When a road sign goes missing, motorists may face confusion and uncertainty. This situation can lead to accidents, potentially causing property damage, personal injury, or even fatalities. Therefore, what might initially appear as a harmless prank can quickly escalate into a life-threatening situation.
Review of Penal Code 602(f) PC and Vehicle Code 21464(a) VC
In California, stealing a road sign can be charged as a crime under several California statutes, the two most common of which are Penal Code 602(f) and Vehicle Code 21464(a).
Penal Code 602(f) falls under the category of trespassing, making it a misdemeanor offense to maliciously tear down, damage, mutilate, or destroy any "sign, signboard, or notice" placed by the state or any county or local municipality that is:
- Intended to indicate a road or highway;
- Intended to provide directions for travelers; or
- Related to fires, fire control, or other information related to property protection.
Vehicle Code 21464(a) defacing or interfering with a traffic control device denotes a more serious offense. It makes it a crime to "deface, injure, attach any material or substance to, knock down, or remove" any "traffic control device," which includes road signage.
VC 21464(a) says, “A person, without lawful authority, may not deface, injure, attach any material or substance to, knock down, or remove, nor may a person shoot at, any official traffic control device, traffic guidepost, traffic signpost, motorist callbox, or historical marker placed or erected as authorized or required by law, nor may a person without lawful authority deface, injure, attach any material or substance to, or remove, nor may a person shoot at, any inscription, shield, or insignia on any device, guide, or marker.”
What Are Penalties for Stealing a Road Sign?
Violations of these statutes can result in significant consequences, depending on how prosecutors decide to charge you.
Violations of PC 602(f)
Under this law, stealing a road sign may be charged as an infraction or a misdemeanor. For an infraction, you could face a maximum fine of $100. For a misdemeanor, you could face the following if convicted:
- Up to $1000 in fines and
- Up to six months in county jail.
Violations of VC 21464(a)
If you're charged under this statute, you could face either misdemeanor or felony charges, depending on the circumstances of your case—but you face more significant penalties if you are convicted.
For misdemeanor offenses, you could face:
- Up to $5000 in fines and
- Up to six months in county jail.
If someone is injured or dies as a result of the stolen road sign, there's a higher likelihood you'll be charged with a felony. If convicted, you could face:
- A minimum of $5000 in fines, up to $10,000, and
- Up to 3 years in state prison.
However, you may also receive summary probation instead of jail time. Probation typically includes community service or labor such as roadside CALTRANS work, electronic monitoring, house arrest, participation in counseling, and paying restitution.
What Are the Common Defenses?
Stealing a road sign in California is a more serious offense than you might be led to believe. If you find yourself accused of stealing a road sign, it is crucial to secure the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately.
Our California criminal lawyers can utilize numerous defenses to help you counter the charges against you. These include, but are not limited to:
- No Malicious Intent: PC 604(f), in particular, requires prosecutors to show you acted maliciously in stealing the sign. Your attorney can argue you had no such malicious intent (for example, you genuinely believed it was a harmless prank).
- Absence of Intent to Steal: You didn't intend to steal the road sign. This defense strategy is based on the premise that you may have removed the sign for a valid reason, such as reporting it as being in a dangerous or damaged condition.
- Mistaken Identity: You are not the individual who took the road sign. This defense strategy relies on the absence of clear, unequivocal evidence linking you to the alleged act.
- Existence of Permission or Consent: You had been granted permission from an individual with the appropriate authority to remove the road sign. This defense requires substantiation of such permission or a reasonable belief that you had it.
- Involuntary Intoxication: You were involuntarily intoxicated at the time of the purported act. This defense necessitates demonstrating that you were unknowingly administered a substance that impaired your judgment.
You can contact our law firm by phone or via the contact form to review the case details. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.