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What's California's Law on Damaging Phone Lines?


Telephones are integral to communicating with others, especially in emergencies that require a law enforcement response. As such, California has a statute that expressly prohibits you from interfering with phone lines. If you violate the law, you will be charged with a misdemeanor or felony. The conviction consequences for either level of offense are severe, resulting in incarceration and fines.

What Is The Law Concerning the Destruction of Phone Lines?

California Penal Code 591 PC is the statute that defines the conduct considered illegal in relation to interfering with phone lines. Before delving into the specifics of the law, we'll provide an example of the offense. Suppose Alex heard her neighbor was going to be out of town for the week. She decided to take the opportunity to break into their home. However, their plans changed, and their trip was postponed for the following month.

While Alex was in their house taking their personal property, she realized her neighbor was asleep in their room. Afraid that they might call the police if they caught her in their home, she cut their telephone line. In addition to burglary charges, Alex could also be prosecuted for damaging phone lines.

For the prosecution to prove that a person is guilty of the offense, they must show that the individual:

  • Acted maliciously when they
  • Took down, removed, injured, disconnected, cut, or obstructed
  • A telephone, telegraph, cable, or electrical line

The elements of the statute aren't just concerned with communication or electrical lines; even obstructing or destroying equipment attached to those lines is an offense.

It is also illegal to make an unauthorized connection to another line. However, this section of the law is not concerned with illegal connections made with telegraph, telephone, or television lines. It deals only with those used to conduct electricity or any other equipment attached to the line.

A violation of this law could be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. The level of offense depends on various factors, such as how much damage was caused and the reason for engaging in the conduct.

If a person is convicted for a misdemeanor, they could be penalized by up to 1 year in jail and/or up to $1,000 in fines. If they are found guilty of a felony, the punishments increase to 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in prison and/or a maximum fine of $10,000.

What About Cell Phones?

California Penal Code 591 PC specifically defines an offense as interfering with the line of a telephone or other apparatus used for certain types of communication. However, nowadays, many people have cell phones, which aren't connected to lines. Are those still covered under the law?

A separate statute exists that is concerned with the destruction of cell phones to prevent someone from summoning assistance or calling law enforcement: California Penal Code 591.5 PC.

Destruction of a cell phone is not the only action the law prohibits. A person commits an offense when they:

  • Remove,
  • Injure,
  • Destroy,
  • Damage, or
  • Obstruct

It is an offense to do any of the above to a cell phone or any other electronic device, whether it’s someone else’s or one’s own.

Returning to the example with Alex, say the house she broke into didn't have a landline. The owner woke up and reached for their cell phone to call the cops. However, Alex grabbed the device before the homeowner could get it. Alex's conduct is unlawful and could result in her being charged for damaging a wireless communication device to prevent getting help.

This offense is a misdemeanor and could result in up to 1 year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

If you’ve been charged with a crime in Santa Barbara, reach out to Appel & Morse today. Call us at (805) 467-6060 or contact us online. Your initial case consultation is free.

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