The railway system is vital to our transportation infrastructure, delivering tons of goods and millions of passengers daily.
If railroad tracks are tampered with or obstructed, at best, it can cause costly delays, and at worst, it can cause millions of dollars in damage, injury, and even death.
For these reasons, it is a crime in California to maliciously damage, injure, or obstruct any part of a railroad track defined under Penal Code 587 PC. If convicted of this crime, you could face up to 3 years in jail.
Simply put, this statute makes it a crime for somebody to damage or obstruct a railroad track and applies to interference with any part of the railroad or placing on it any obstruction. This law can be filed as either a misdemeanor or a felony by prosecutors.
PC 587 says, “Every person who maliciously does either of the following is punishable by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170, or imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year:
(a) Removes, displaces, injures, or destroys any part of any railroad, whether for steam or horse cars, or any track of any railroad, or any branch or branch way, switch, turnout, bridge, viaduct, culvert, embankment, station house, or other structure or fixture, or any part thereof, attached to or connected with any railroad.
(b) Places any obstruction upon the rails or track of any railroad, switch, branch, branch way, or turnout connected with any railroad.”
“Maliciously” in context means a wrongful act done intentionally and without legal cause. This law makes it illegal to maliciously damage or destroy any railroad track, part, or maliciously obstruct the rails or track of a railroad. Let's review this state law in more detail below.
What Does the Law Say?
PC 587 places legal protections on all elements of the railroad infrastructure. It makes it a criminal offense to do either of the following:
- To maliciously remove, displace, injure, or destroy "any part of any railroad." This includes tracks, switches, branches, bridges, viaducts, station houses, embankments, etc.
- To maliciously place any obstruction on "any part of any railroad," again, including the tracks and all connected components.
To obtain a conviction, prosecutors must prove the following elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt:
- You damaged, removed, or destroyed a section of a railroad track or any other component of the railroad; OR
- You placed an obstruction on the tracks or any other component of the railroad; AND
- You acted with malicious intent.
As noted, for purposes of this law, to act "maliciously" means to do a thing intentionally, wrongfully, and without any legal justification.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: Aaron drags a tree limb across a set of tracks to see what will happen when an oncoming train hits it.
Regardless of whether a train makes contact with the tree limb, Aaron can be charged under PC 587 for intentionally obstructing the tracks.
EXAMPLE 2: As a prank, Sam takes a blowtorch and welds a track-switching mechanism so the switch will not operate. Sam can be charged under PC 587 for willfully injuring part of the railroad.
EXAMPLE 3: Bob's car stalls on the tracks at a railroad crossing, and he cannot move the car out of the way of an oncoming train. Bob is not guilty under PC 587 because the obstruction caused by his car was incidental, not intentional, nor malicious.
What Are the Related Crimes?
Violations of PC 587 often occur in tandem with other crimes, which may be charged simultaneously. These include, but are not limited to:
- Trespassing defined under Penal Code 602: Entering someone else's property without permission. Generally speaking, the train infrastructure is someone else's property, so you'd likely have to trespass to commit the damage or obstruction;
- Vandalism defined under Penal Code 594: Defacing, damaging, or destroying someone else's property;
- Train wrecking defined under Penal Code 218: A much more serious version of injury/obstruction in which someone deliberately obstructs the railroad, sets explosives, or sets a bridge/trestle on fire intending to cause derailment or death. This is a felony offense with a penalty of life without parole;
- Damaging phone or electrical lines defined under Penal Code 591 PC: It's a crime to unlawfully take down, remove, damage, or obstruct a telephone line, cable, electrical lines, or mechanical equipment.
What Are the Penalties for PC 587?
Violating PC 587 is a "wobbler" offense, which may be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony.
Determining how to charge the crime may depend on several factors, including the potential danger created by the damage or obstruction, your prior criminal history, and the extent of disruption or damage caused by the action.
- If you're convicted of a misdemeanor, you face up to one year in county jail.
- If you're convicted of a felony, you face up to 3 years in county jail.
If significant damage, injury, or death occurs due to your actions, you may also face additional criminal charges, possible additional penalties, and jail time.
What Are the Defenses for PC 587?
Suppose you are charged with violating Penal Code 587. In that case, your California criminal defense attorney may use any of several defenses to disprove one or more of the critical elements of the charge discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that you did not act maliciously. Malicious intent is the most critical factor in obtaining a conviction for PC 587.
If your attorney can show that your actions were not intentional or malicious, or if the prosecutor cannot show beyond a reasonable doubt that they were, the charge may be reduced or dismissed.
For example, perhaps you were hanging around the tracks and forgot your backpack, leaving it on the tracks. Or the damage you caused to a railroad component was accidental.
Perhaps we can argue there was no injury or obstruction occurred. If your actions did not cause significant enough "injury" to affect the operation of the tracks, or if the "obstruction" was not substantial enough to affect the movement of the train, such as you left a penny on the rail so the train would flatten it, you should not be convicted under PC 587.
Perhaps we could negotiate with the prosecution for reduced charges or even convince them not to file formal criminal charges in the first place through prefiling intervention.
If you were charged with damaging railroad tracks violating Penal Code 587 PC, contact our law firm to review the case details and legal options. You can contact us by phone or by using the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.