The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled today that while the malicious destruction of property statute requires proof that the defendant acted with malice, it is not necessary that the malice was directed toward the owner of the property. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Chambers.
This criminal case began in a typical fashion – with neighbors who hate one another. The defendant and the victim (the term “victim” is used quite liberally here) lived in the same apartment building in Dorchester and bickered with one another about trash responsibilities. One December morning in 2013, the defendant wanted to drive her car out of the driveway, but the victim’s car was blocking access to the street. The defendant asked the victim to move her car and allow the defendant to leave, but the victim refused (saying she would move only when her daughter, who was inside the apartment building, was ready to go to work). Naturally, the victim’s obnoxious, unnecessary conduct caused the defendant to lose her mind. The defendant swore at the victim and began kicking the door to the victim’s apartment. The defendant’s kicks shattered the wood on the door frame and it became impossible to lock the door until it was fixed several days later. The cops showed up a few minutes later and asked the victim to move her car. As she drove away, the defendant spit on the vehicle.
The victim rented her apartment unit from a bank and was therefore not responsible for paying to repair the door. Following a jury trial in Dorchester District Court, the defendant was convicted of willfully and maliciously destroying property with a value of less than $250. The defendant appealed, primarily arguing that she could not be convicted of malicious destruction of property because her malice had not been directed toward the property owner (and, in fact, she did not even know who owned the property).
The prosecutor is obligated to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s damage of property was malicious, which means the defendant’s conduct was driven by hostility, cruelty, or revenge. The Appeals Court held it was unnecessary for the prosecutor to prove the identity of the target of the malice. In a case like this, it is immaterial whether the defendant even knows who the property owner is. The Court gave examples from past cases in which malice was proven despite the mystery of the property owner. For example, a man has previously been convicted of malicious destruction of property when he used a BB gun to shoot out the windows of strangers’ cars. Another defendant was properly convicted of malicious destruction of property after smashing a parking lot booth’s window and tearing out the heating and lighting units. Accordingly, the defendant’s conviction and sentence (one year of probation) in this case were proper.
It’s a shame the “victim” couldn’t have also been charged with a crime in this case. From reading of the Appeals Court decision, it appears both of these people were nightmare neighbors and deserved to be punished.