The Office of the Attorney General lost a valuable weapon in fighting property crimes due to a new law—signed only in March—that repealed the most useful part of the criminal mischief law and created a vandalism offense with no possibility of imprisonment, according to CNMI Chief Prosecutor John Bradley.
Citing that a substantial number of property crimes in the CNMI include the destruction of property, Bradley urged the Legislature Monday to consider amending the new vandalism law to restore the application of imprisonment as punishment, with enhancements based on the value of the damage to the property.
Last March 21, Gov. Ralph DLG Torres signed a bill into Public Law 21-18, which created a new statute for prosecuting vandalism and amended the criminal mischief law. With the CNMI seeing a string of new cases involving damage to property, the OAG is finding that the new law limits the seriousness of the charge and punishment, Bradley said.
He cited recent cases involving damage to property, including the case of a man who broke the glass door at the Governor’s Office, a man who threw a rock through a car window, a man who broke the window at a bar in Garapan, and another man who deliberately rammed his car into another car.
“In all these cases, under the new law, the maximum punishment is only a fine,” Bradley pointed out. Before the passage of P.L. 21-18, those crimes were punished as criminal mischief. The punishment range was previously determined by the value of the damage—the higher the damage, the more serious the punishment. In addition, the original law enhanced the punishment if the victim was elderly.
However, Bradley said, the new law repealed all of those protections. For crimes committed on or after March 20, 2020, there is no longer a crime of criminal mischief merely by causing damage to property of another. That crime was renamed vandalism.
“In addition, all acts of vandalism, regardless of the value of the damage, are punished only by imposition of a fine and community service hours,” Bradley said. This means a person destroying a new truck is charged the same under CNMI criminal laws as a person breaking a single window, and that neither person can be sentenced to imprisonment.
He said these changes also make it very difficult to obtain restitution for victims. “Typically, part of the period of imprisonment is suspended to place the defendant on probation and impose a condition of paying restitution,” he said.
Bradley said if the defendant fails to pay the restitution, the court can consider revoking the probation and sending the defendant to prison. However, under the new law, that option is not available.