Graffiti crimes can once again be prosecuted in Seattle, court rules

Feb 2, 2024, 3:33 PM

graffiti seattle...

A worker power-sprays graffiti from a building on 4th Avenue on March 09, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. The city has recently struggled with an uptick in homelessness and violent crime. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Eight months after a federal judge shot down the city of Seattle’s ability to prosecute people for graffiti crimes, City Attorney Ann Davison announced the ordinance is once again in effect.

In other words: If you tag something, prepare to be charged with a gross misdemeanor.

The change comes after a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, reversing U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman’s previous ruling.

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Last June, Judge Pechman issued an injunction halting the city’s property destruction ordinance, finding it “poses a real threat to censorship,” particularly as it relates to graffiti.

It came after a lawsuit filed by four people who used charcoal and chalk to write messages protesting police violence in early 2021 — on a temporary concrete wall outside the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) East Precinct.

Even though the messages contained expletives and “anti-police” rhetoric, according to some Seattle residents, the judge said it fell under free speech.

She also said the city’s existing property damage laws can violate a person’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and that as they’re phrased right now, are “overly vague and overboard.”

Initially, there was some confusion around what laws became unenforceable under the order since the ordinance covers multiple types of property crimes, including smashing windows or destroying personal property. SPD released a statement after the ruling that the department “cannot take action on damage to property under this law.”

The judge later clarified that the injunction is only related to the city’s laws around graffiti and that police are able to make arrests for other types of property crimes.

Davison appealed the lower court ruling on Jul. 3, and made oral arguments to the Court on Jan. 9. The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the city on Friday morning.

“The people of Seattle won an important victory today,” Davison said in a prepared statement. “Graffiti is a massive problem for our city, costing taxpayers, businesses and residents millions of dollars while creating widespread visual blight. We must have as many tools as possible to protect neighbors and residents impacted by graffiti.”

According to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, graffiti in Seattle has increased by 50% since 2019, including nearly 20,000 reports of graffiti and tagging in 2021 alone.

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In October 2022, Harrell announced the One Seattle Graffiti Plan to reduce graffiti as part of a larger city beautification project. Among other things, it included graffiti cleanup kits for city residents to use. Ahead of the 2023 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Harrell relaunched the Graffiti Abatement Partnership, to focus on graffiti removal in downtown Seattle and the Chinatown–International District.

While tagging can once again be prosecuted, the city’s Graffiti Nuisance Ordinance still requires property owners to remove graffiti in a timely manner.

To report graffiti on public property, or on private property that has persisted for a period of time, you can use the Seattle Public Utilities online report form, download the Find It, Fix It mobile app, or call the City’s Graffiti Report Line at (206) 684-7587. You can make a police report online or call (206) 625-5011 when graffiti appears on your property. If you see an act of graffiti vandalism in progress, you’re asked to call 911 immediately.

You can read more of Kate Stone’s stories here. Follow Kate on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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Graffiti crimes can once again be prosecuted in Seattle, court rules