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District Judge Bars Seattle Police From Enforcing Graffiti Ban

Published: June 15, 2023
A man yells at Seattle Police as they arrest demonstrators who were blocking the intersection of East Pine Street and 11th Avenue after police cleared the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) and retook the department's East Precinct in Seattle, Washington on July 1, 2020. (Image: JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

On June 13 (Tuesday), U.S. District Court Judge Marcha Pechman issued a preliminary injunction according to which the City of Seattle cannot enforce its laws banning graffiti vandalism, even on private property.

According to Pechman, the existing property laws, being “overly vague and overboard,” can violate a person’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

On June 14, the Seattle Police Department published a statement acknowledging receipt of the order.

“This means that 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,” the SPD statement reads.

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best addresses the press as city crews dismantle the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) area outside of the Seattle Police Department’s vacated East Precinct on July 1, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Image: David Ryder/Getty Images)

It continues, expressing sympathy for vandalism victims: “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.”

Pechman explained her decision, saying that the injunction was necessary because of the braod scope that the current law covers. According to her, the law as currently formulated gives police too much discretion.

Journalist Jonathan Choe, who covers homelessness and public disorder in U.S. cities, noted in a long Twitter post that Pechman’s order was in response to a lawsuit by vandal suspects arrested in 2021.

The apprehended individuals “were arrested in 2021 for writing ‘BLM,’ and anti-cop expletives such as ‘[expletive] the police’ in chalk and charcoal on concrete walls that had been erected to protect SPD’s East Precinct from vandalism and rioters,” Choe wrote on June 15.

The injunction comes as Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell attempts to focus on controlling graffiti while “striking a balance with larger penalties for the most prolific taggers and expanded diversion options for low-level offenders.”