Seattle judge rules police must permit property damage, cannot enforce laws against graffiti, vandalism

“…until further order of the Court, SPD cannot take action on damage to property under this law."

Ari Hoffman Seattle WA
UPDATE: On Thursday, Judge Pechman issued a clarifying order on the original injunction, stating the city or police can prosecute those who intentionally damage the property of others and any such crime remains a gross misdemeanor. However, the preliminary injunction still applies to the enforcement of the prohibition on property defacement, including graffiti, and as a result, police cannot arrest someone caught vandalizing property with graffiti. According to the judge's order, this was done to avoid criminalizing free speech.

The Seattle Police Department has stated that officers can no longer enforce laws regarding property damage following a ruling from a federal judge.

On Tuesday, US District Court Judge Marcha Pechman issued an injunction that the City of Seattle cannot enforce its anti-graffiti ban in response to a lawsuit by Derek Tucson, Robin Snyder, Monsieree de Castro, and Erik Moya-Delgado who were arrested in 2021 for writing “BLM,” and anti-cop expletives such as "F*ck the police" in chalk and charcoal on concrete walls that had been erected to protect SPD’s East Precinct from vandalism and rioters.

The preliminary injunction from Pechman stated that the city’s existing property damage laws can violate a person’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and are “overly vague and overboard.”

On Wednesday in response to the ruling, SPD released a statement that read, “…until further order of the Court, SPD cannot take action on damage to property under this law. This is not a matter within SPD or City discretion; we are bound by the court order as it is written.”

“We understand and share the concerns that are being relayed to us by our community, businesses, and residents alike. We know, as evidenced by the thousands of calls for service we receive each year reporting acts of vandalism and other forms of property damage that property damage is, in fact, a crime that is of significance to community members. SPD is working closely with the Mayor’s Office and City Attorney’s Office to assess next steps with the Court.”

According to Seattle’s municipal code, “property destruction” is a gross misdemeanor and can be punished by up to 364 days in jail if “he or she… [w]rites, paints, or draws any inscription, figure, or mark of any type on any public or private building or other structure or any real or personal property owned by any other person.”

Seattle has been plagued by graffiti and spiking crime. Recently, Mayor Bruce Harrell has attempted to focus on graffiti and pledged in 2022 to “increase enforcement of graffiti offenses, striking a balance with larger penalties for the most prolific taggers and expanded diversion options for low-level offenders.” 

Pechman ruled that the law can have people arrested for exercising their free speech rights under the guise of “preventing even temporary visual blight.”

“On its face, the Ordinance sweeps so broadly that it criminalizes innocuous drawings (from a child’s drawing of a mermaid to pro-police messages written by the Seattle Police Foundation that can hardly be said to constitute ‘visual blight’ and which would naturally wash away in the next rain storm,” and that the law could enable police to arrest people for “attaching a streamer to someone else’s bicycle or writing a note of ‘hello’ on a classmate’s notebook without express permission,” Pechman added.

“While there is allegedly a policy not to arrest children drawing rainbows on the sidewalk, the Ordinance itself allows the police to do just that and to arrest those who might scribe something that irks an individual officer,” Pechman continued.

“Although the Ordinance also criminalizes ‘property destruction,’ it equally targets speech. As such, it has a close enough nexus to expression that it poses a real and substantial threat of censorship.”

Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison’s office also issued a statement on Wednesday saying they will not be filing any property destruction charges as a result of the order but are immediately filing a motion asking the judge to reconsider. 
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