Seattle will start enforcing its anti-graffiti law again

The Seattle City Attorney’s Office said it will resume enforcement of the city’s anti-graffiti ordinance, in the wake of a favorable ruling by a federal appeals court.

The city has been barred from enforcing the ordinance making illegal graffiti a gross misdemeanor for the past seven months.

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Last June, U.S. District judge Marsha Pechman ruled in favor of four people who challenged Seattle’s property destruction ordinance as unconstitutional. They had been arrested for writing anti-police slogans in chalk and charcoal on public property.

Pechman prohibited enforcement of the ordinance’s graffiti-related provision, saying it was overly vague and broad and raised free speech concerns. But now a three-judge panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has struck down that injunction.

The appeals court ruling concluded that Pechman “speculated about possible vagueness in hypothetical and fanciful situations” and that her concerns did not outweigh the many legitimate applications of the anti-graffiti law.

The ruling stated, ”By failing to inquire into the ordinance’s numerous lawful applications, the district court was unable to analyze whether the number of unconstitutional applications was substantially disproportionate to the statute’s lawful sweep.”

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Braden Pence, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement that their lawsuit will continue.

“Our fight for the right to criticize the Seattle Police Department in children’s sidewalk chalk written on public property without fear of arrest and booking into jail is not over,” Pence said. “The Ninth Circuit left open paths whereby Judge Pechman can still find the anti-writing ordinance unconstitutional, and we look forward to continuing to pursuing these claims in court.”

Dan Temkin owns commercial properties in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood and said graffiti “has been a big issue and in our experience gotten much worse since the pandemic.” He said his properties were tagged in multiple places as recently as last weekend, including one vertigo-inducing spot at the top of a four-story building.

caption: Dan Temkin says his Belltown commercial property was damaged by graffiti in multiple spots last weekend. He said he's skeptical that Seattle will be able to enforce its anti-graffiti ordinance even after the appeals court ruling.

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“I have never called the police about graffiti,” he said. “I was aware they were not prosecuting, so it would be kind of a waste of time.”

Even in the wake of the city attorney’s announcement, Temkin said police understaffing will still be a major factor. He said, “I’m glad to hear of this ruling, but I’m a little skeptical as to how much it’s going to be enforced.”

City Attorney Ann Davison called the appeals court decision an important victory, and said graffiti is a massive problem that costs Seattle millions of dollars to address.

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