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PC 587: Injure or Obstruct Railroad Tracks: Law & Defense

Updated: Jul 1

Information on the crime of damaging or obstructing railroad tracks is found at California penal code section 587 (PC 587). This section of criminal law primarily covers purposeful damage and/or obstruction of railroad tracks, but it also covers purposeful damage to other parts of a railroads and railroad-type equipment, such as level crossing signals (crossing arms), railroad signals and signs, bridges that support trains, and more.


Penal Code 587 Law:


Every person who maliciously does either of the following is guilty of damaging, injuring, or obstructing rail road equipment or tracks:


  • 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, switch, turnout, bridge, viaduct, culvert, embankment, station house, or other structure or fixture, or any part thereof, attached to ro connected with any railroad (PC 587(a)).


  • Places any obstruction upon the rails or track of any railroad, or of any switch, branch branchway, or turnout connected with any railroad (PC 587(b)).


Note: PC 587 is often referred to as damaging or obstructing rail road tracks; however, the crime is charge whenever any part of a raid road is effected by the defendant’s malicious conduct, including railroad arms (railroad gates), signs, signal lights, etc.. However, if the train cars themselves are damaged without damage to the tracks or railroad equipment, then the charge is usually vandalism, commercial burglary, theft, or graffiti, depending on the defendant’s conduct and intent. In other words, it is the damaging, injuring, or obstruction of railroad transportation that is protected per PC 587.

For example, if the defendant stretches wire and magnets across railroad track to disrupt indicators that detect the presence of a train on the railroad (placing a shunt) then that defendant may be charged with PC 587. This is true even if the indicators are not actually disrupted by the defendant’s malicious act.


Malicious Defined: A person acts maliciously when she intends to do harm by her act.


Penal Code 587 Penalties


The crime of maliciously damaging or obstructing a railroad track is classified as a wobbler. A wobbler is a crime that may be charged either as a misdemeanor, or alternatively as a felony (the crime “wobbles” back and forth between classifications). This wobbler classification is important when it comes to plea bargaining and post-conviction relief (see below).


Jail for PC 587


Felony PC 587 Jail: If the defendant is convicted of damaging or obstructing a railroad track as a felony then the defendant may face up to 16 months, 2, or 3 years in jail. This assumes that the defendant is not granted a probation sentence in lieu of a jail sentence. Also, the exact jail term of either 16 months, 2, or 3 years is decided by many factors, including the defendant’s criminal history, the sophistication level of the defendant’s crime, the terms of any negotiated plea bargain, and more.


Misdemeanor PC 587 Jail Sentence: If the defendant is convicted of damaging or obstructing a railroad track as a misdemeanor then the defendant may face a jail sentence from zero to three hundred sixty-five days (0-365). Again, this assumes the defendant is not granted a probation sentence. The exact length of time the defendant is ordered to serve in misdemeanor PC 587 cases depends on many factors that are similar to the factors used to determine the felony jail sentence length (see above).


Probation Sentence


A probation sentence is allowed in PC 587 cases, but a probation sentence is not guaranteed. Essentially, a probation sentence is a period of supervision over the defendant, as opposed to an actual jail sentence. Whether or not a defendant is allowed to serve a probation sentence after a PC 587 conviction depends on many factors, including the defendant's criminal history, the circumstances of the case, and more.


Note: In some probation cases, the defendant might be ordered to serve an actual jail sentence as a condition of probation. Actual jail sentences that are ordered as a condition of probation may usually, but not always, be served alternatively on work release or house arrest. Also, any actual jail sentence ordered as a condition of probation is generally much shorter in duration than the jail terms that are associated with not probation sentences.


Felony v. Misdemeanor Probation: A probation sentence is supervised by a probation officer in felony cases. In misdemeanor cases, the defendant is usually monitored by the court. Sometimes, a probation sentence related to a misdemeanor PC 587 probation sentence is supervised by an actual probation officer (similar to felony probation), but this only happens in cases where the district attorney or the judge believes that there is some special reason why actual supervision of the defendant is preferred to simply monitoring of the defendant by the court.


Note: Felony probation is sometimes called formal probation and usually carries harsh conditions known as terms of probation. Misdemeanor probation is sometimes called informal or court probation and the conditions are generally less harsh than the conditions related to felony probation.


For example, common felony probation conditions require the defendant to not leave the state of California, or the county where the defendant resides, without first obtaining prior permission from the probation department. On the other hand, there are usually no travel restriction related to misdemeanor probation conditions. Other felony probation terms usually include Bravo search terms (prior consent to personal search of the defendant and her home by law enforcement), regular reporting to the probation office, regular polygraph examination, and more.


Work Release & House Arrest


Work release is a type of manual labor that usually involves picking up trash around jails and prisons, and/or highways. Work release is a common condition related to both felony and misdemeanor probation sentences in PC 587 cases (if probation is granted).


House arrest, or electronic monitoring, is another common condition of both felony and misdemeanor probation related to PC 587 cases. House arrest requires the probationer to remain at her home during non-work hours. There are other differences between work release and house arrest that may be found at Work Release / House Arrest.


PC 1170(h) Sentencing


The crime of damaging or obstructing railroad tracks is covered under California’s new PC 1170(h) sentencing law. Basically, per PC 1170(h), jail sentences related to PC 587 convictions may be served in a local county jail, as opposed to a state prison. This is true even if the defendant is convicted of a felony PC 587 violation and she is thereafter ordered to serve the maximum jail sentence (3 years).


Additionally, jail sentences for PC 587 violations may be split (served partially in jail and partially out of jail on work release), or suspended (not served unless the defendant violates a terms of her out-of-jail release).


Note: Suspended jail sentences are often referred to as “joint suspension” by jail and prison inmates despite the fact that PC 1170(h) law makes no reference to the term “joint suspension.” The term “Joint suspension” is a slang term which refers to the jail as the “joint” and the fact that the sentence is held up, or “suspended.” The term joint suspension is not usually used by criminal defense attorneys when referring to suspended jail or prison sentences.


Three Strikes Law


PC 587 violations are not considered serious or violent offenses as those terms are defined in California law at PC 1192.7(c) and PC 667.5(c), respectively. This means that a violation of PC 587 is not considered a strike offense under California’s Three Strikes Law. Of course, if the damaging or obstructing of railroad tracks leads to injury or death, then the defendant may be charged with strike offenses, such as great bodily injury penalty enhancements, involuntary manslaughter, or even murder.


Good Behavior Credits: If the defendant is ordered to serve actual jail time, or work release, either as a sentence after conviction, or as a term of probation, then that jail sentence or work release sentence may be reduced by up to fifty percent (50%) if the defendant serves her time with good behavior. This is known as good behavior credits or good conduct credits. Also, the defendant is entitled to this credit off her jail or work release sentence even if her sentence was split under PC 1170(h) sentencing (see above at PC 1170(h)).


For example, if the defendant is ordered to serve two years of jail after a conviction for damaging or obstructing railroad tracks, then that sentence may be split in half under PC 1170(h) sentence, and the balance of that split sentence is subject to good conduct credits. In essence, that two year sentence becomes six (6) months in the county jail (if the defendant is "good" while in jail). Other credits might also apply for in-custody prisoners who earn education credits or work credits while in jail.


Note: For persons convicted of PC 587, and thereafter opt for an actual in-custody jail sentence, as opposed to a work release or house arrest sentence, then that person could released earlier than her expected release date due to a federal release (aka "fed-kick"). This occurs where the jails are overcrowded and the federal government orders state inmates to be released early to avoid overcrowding. However, a federal release is not guaranteed for persons choosing an actual jail sentence. For more information on federal release of inmates (aka "fed-kick"), contact a criminal defense lawyer.


Crime Involving Moral Turpitude


Damaging or obstructing railroad tracks is likely considered a crime involving moral turpitude, especially if a victim is injured due to her PC 587 violation. A crime involving moral turpitude, or CIMT, is a crime that involves dishonesty or is otherwise considered morally wrong. A CIMT carries negative consequences above and beyond the penalties associated with the criminal conviction itself.


For instance, any arrest or conviction for a crime involving moral turpitude, including a conviction for PC 587, can lead to immigration consequences, military service consequences, professional licensing consequences, and more. For more information, see CIMT.


Additional Penalties


In addition to the penalties listed above, if the defendant is found guilty of damaging or obstruct railroad tracks, the defendant could face any of the following additional penalties: Civil lawsuits from victims injured (or the railroad company as a victim), restitution orders, criminal protective orders, court fees and fines, harsh probation or parole terms, loss of certain rights in family law court, and more.


Bail: Bail is an amount of property or money deposited with the court which is intended to serve as assurance of the defendant’s presence in court if she is release on bail. In other words, if the defendant is released from jail during the criminal law proceedings, and she does not appear to court as promised after her release from jail, then her bail may be revoked and the defendant will be returned to jail.


Note: Bail is not really a penalty related to a PC 587 allegation, but the reality is that most defendants will not be released from jail without paying bail in PC 587 cases; therefore, this additional cost is similar to a penalty. The bail amount in felony PC 587 cases is $25,000, or the amount of loss to the railroad company, if any [San Bernardino Co. 2021]. In misdemeanor PC 587 cases the bail amount is usually $5,000. Sometimes, the defendant might be released from jail without the need for posting bail (bond). This is known as an own recognizance release (O.R. Release). For more information, see Bail Considerations.


Penal Code 587 Defenses


Common defense to a charge of damaging or obstructing railroad tracks include, but are not limited to: Insufficient Evidence (Discussed further below), Statute of Limitations (3 years from the date of the alleged crime in both misdemeanor and felony PC 587 cases), insanity, alibi, illegal search and seizure, coerced confessions, and jury nullification. For further discussion of these different defenses that are common to PC 587 allegations, see Defenses to Crime.


Insufficient Evidence


Criminal allegations must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt by a prosecutor. If the prosecutor cannot prove the criminal allegations beyond a reasonable doubt, then the charges should be either dismissed, or the defendant should be acquitted after a trial.


In PC 587 cases, the prosecutor must show that the defendant acted maliciously. In other words, if the prosecutor cannot show that the defendant damaged or blocked railroad tracks on purpose, then the charges should be dropped.


For example, if the defendant’s vehicle is blocking a train because the vehicle is stopped on the railroad tracks, the defendant’s actions are not necessarily malicious. After all, the defendant’s vehicle might be disabled by accident. The same could be said for ranchers and their cattle or sheep that are blocking a train from proceeding on its route.


Plea Bargain Negotiations


A negotiated plea is an agreement between the district attorney and the defendant whereby the district attorney obtains a conviction, but only because the district attorney agreed to pursue a lighter sentence, a lighter criminal charge, or both, against the defendant and the defendant agreed. A negotiated plea is not a defense in the traditional sense. Rather, a negotiated plea is a common way that criminal charges are resolved early in order to avoid the possibility of greater punishment for the defendant.


For example, in a PC 587 cases, where the defendant is alleged have intentionally blocked a train, the defendant might be offered a simple trespass charge, along with restitution and probation terms, as opposed to an actual jail sentence, so long as the defendant pleads guilty (or no contest) early in the criminal proceedings.


Note: Plea bargain negotiations and/or offers from the district attorney are not guaranteed in a criminal case. However, most cases are be resolved through negotiated plea bargaining if the defendant wishes.


Also, just because a person enters into plea bargaining with the district attorney does not mean that the district attorney is going to make an offer for no jail time. On the contrary, in felony PC 587 cases, if the district attorney makes a plea bagain offer to the defendant, that offer would likely include jail time.


Furthermore, in felony PC 587 cases, the district attorney might make an offer to reduce the charges to misdemeanor PC 587 violations. Again, there is no guarantee of this and every case is different. However, in many wobbler cases, including PC 587 violations, a common offer by the district attorney iincludes reducing the crime from felony charges to misdemeanor charges in exchange for the defendant’s agreement to plead guilty (or no contest).


Post-Conviction Options


After a conviction for damaging (injure) or obstructing (blocking) a railroad track, the defendant might have several post-conviction options, including Expungement of the criminal record, Petition for Governor’s Pardon, Appeal the Criminal Conviction, Certificate of Rehabilitation and Early Termination of Probation.


Seal & Destroy Arrest


If the defendant was arrested for damaging or obstructing train tracks, but the district attorney never filed the PC 587 charges, or the district attorney filed the PC 587 charges, but the defendant was found not guilty after a court or jury trial, then the defendant might be able to have those arrest records sealed and destroyed. For more information, see Seal & Destroy Arrest Records.


For more information on the crime of damaging or obstructing railroad trucks, or penal code 587, contact our criminal defense lawyers for a free consultations. Our team of highly experienced criminal defendant lawyers have successfully handled hundreds of misdemeanor and felony violations in San Bernardino County, including Redlands, Fontana, Rancho Cucamonga, Yucaipa, Rialto, Ontario, Victorville, and more). We can visit local jails for free consultations in some cases as well (WVDC, CDC, and Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center). Call today!


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PC 587: Injure or Obstruct Railroad Tracks
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