UPDATE: City Attorney clarifies federal judge’s graffiti-vandalism ruling

3:59 PM: Seattle Police published this statement this afternoon:

Late yesterday afternoon, SPD received an order from a US District Court judge that enjoined, in full, enforcement of SMC 12A.080.020 – the City’s misdemeanor property destruction law. 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.

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.

We hadn’t heard about this case before. It challenges graffiti-vandalism arrests under a city law that specifically targets graffiti vandalism, but does NOT mention other forms of “property destruction::

A.A person is guilty of property destruction if he or she:
1.Intentionally damages the property of another; or
2.Writes, 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.

The order by federal Judge Marsha Pechman is a preliminary injunction – meaning it could be temporary. Here it is, as linked in a news release from City Attorney Ann Davison‘s office. In the ruling, Judge Pechman writes in part that the law:

“… targets speech (and) poses a real and substantial threat of censorship. … 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 … The Court agrees with Defendants that the public benefits from preventing property damage and visual blight. But the criminalization of free speech significantly harms the public interest in far greater measure than the public might benefit from criminalizing property damage.”

Meantime, the City Attorney’s Office said that today it would ‘file a motion asking Judge Pechman for expedited reconsideration of the order. The Criminal Division of the Seattle City Attorney’s Office will not be filing property destruction charges under this law for the time being.”

6:34 PM: The City Attorney’s Office has since sent this statement clarifying that the injunction only sought to target graffiti vandalism, not other kinds of property damage:

At the direction of the Court, counsel for the City and the plaintiffs conferred this afternoon to determine whether they agreed that the Preliminary Injunction should enjoin enforcement of both SMC 12A.08.020(A)(1) and (A)(2) or just SMC 12A.03.020(A)(2). After conferring, the parties submitted a stipulated notice to the Court stating their agreement that the Preliminary Injunction enjoins only SMC 12A.08.020(A)(2). We anticipate the Court will issue an order confirming the stipulation and narrowed scope of the Preliminary Injunction Order. The effect of this change is significant because it permits the City to continue enforcing violations involving property damage, a gross misdemeanor, under SMC 12.08.020(A)(1). Subsection (A)(2) of the ordinance remains enjoined, pending further order of the Court.

The aforementioned “stipulated notice” can be read here.

52 Replies to "UPDATE: City Attorney clarifies federal judge's graffiti-vandalism ruling"

  • Sim June 14, 2023 (4:11 pm)

    It would be nice if certain neighbors would quickly paint over any graffiti on their fence versus leaving it for years and it becomes a nuisance to your neighbors and encourages more graffiti to be sprayed over and over on your fence. Of course painting costs money but it encourages gangs and people who do graffiti to continue this practice of tagging your fence.

    • Seth June 14, 2023 (4:34 pm)

      You should foot the bill.  Kinda hand waived away the “of course it costs money” like everyone can afford it.  

  • Fed up WS resident June 14, 2023 (4:12 pm)

    I moved here in the 90’s and I can’t believe I’m saying this but the quality of life has deteriorated so much I am ready to move….it is really sad.

    • pilar June 14, 2023 (5:12 pm)

      Me too. And I never thought I’d say that.

    • Josh June 14, 2023 (5:24 pm)

      Help out or move out. 

      • Curious June 15, 2023 (3:37 pm)

        What do you do to “help out” Josh? Maybe you can inspire others?

  • Jay June 14, 2023 (4:15 pm)

    This is a good ruling. The ordinance is obnoxiously broad and severely inappropriately applied to chalk on eco blocks. That should not be a gross misdemeanor carrying up to a year in jail and a $5k fine.

    • Byron James June 14, 2023 (4:29 pm)

      Please, tell us all about the people that spent time in jail for using chalk on an ecoblock.

    • t June 14, 2023 (4:37 pm)

      any citation on the enforcement against sidewalk chalk?

      • Jay June 14, 2023 (4:57 pm)

        Read the case that is linked!!!!!

      • Unfortunate June 14, 2023 (5:02 pm)

        That’s literally what this lawsuit was about: the police arresting people for using chalk to write words critical of the police.

        • Jeff Troutt June 14, 2023 (6:32 pm)

          The rulling covers more than this law suit. 

    • Marina June 14, 2023 (4:38 pm)

      Except that this isn’t just about graffiti. Someone can take a baseball bat to your car, and there’s nothing you’d be able to do about it. Think of all those rocks thrown through business windows in the past few months. And if you don’t care about small businesses, think about your home. Someone can come up to your house or apartment right now and do all the property damage they want with no consequences. Cops now aren’t allowed to arrest the guy and the city attorney isn’t allowed to prosecute. 

      • WSB June 14, 2023 (4:46 pm)

        No, this law specifically refers only to graffiti. It uses the terminology “property destruction” but that’s *not* what it’s about, which is why I wrote that in the story and linked the full law. (Added: Other kinds of vandalism/property damage are covered in other laws – I’m still finding direct references but for example in some cases it falls under malicious harassment:
        https://library.municode.com/wa/seattle/codes/municipal_code?nodeId=TIT12ACRCO_SUBTITLE_ICRCO_CH12A.06OFAGPE_12A.06.115MAHA )

        • Marina June 14, 2023 (5:40 pm)

          As explained to me by an investigative journalist who’s been trying to decipher the order and the law since last night (and an SPD spokesperson), while this started as being about charcoal and chalk graffiti and that’s what the order was about, it also included broadly property damage and vandalism. Do my understanding is that while the judge was talking about graffiti, SPD isn’t allowed to arrest for any property crimes and vandalism (12A.08.020, A.1.).

          • Jay June 14, 2023 (7:16 pm)

            The ruling only applies to subsection A2, A1 is still enforceable.

    • Lauren June 14, 2023 (6:37 pm)

      Agreed, Jay

  • Duffy June 14, 2023 (4:16 pm)

    LOL! That’s it. I’m done!

    • Unfortunate June 14, 2023 (4:31 pm)

      Thank you! I’m glad I’m not the only one getting sick of the police’s horrible behavior causing problems like this! If they would stop unconstitutionally using laws selectively to punish people that upset them and just do their jobs we’d be in such a better place.

      • 937 June 14, 2023 (5:53 pm)


        Did you forget the /s?

        Cause I really hope you forgot the /s

  • Gaslit June 14, 2023 (4:22 pm)

    So, judicial activism once again stomps all over Due Process. It’s the job of the legal system to prosecute and hear these cases. If graffiti is artistic expression or free speech, then that can be proven fairly easily. This judge’s decision allows anyone to walk on your property, spray paint anything they want on your home, cars or possessions and they are protected under the right to free speech. Hopefully nobody spray paints a swastika on my garage tonight. 

    • Jay June 14, 2023 (4:59 pm)

      The police arrested people for chalk drawings on eco blocks, that’s what this was about. The law was too broad and was abused.

      • Gaslit June 14, 2023 (6:04 pm)

        The judge’s summation borders on unhinged. The unintended consequences far outweigh these four people’s alleged victimization. Between the city council last week and this nonsense it sure seems like local “progressives” sure are mad that their friend NTK didn’t win that election.

        • ChalkingIsSpeech June 15, 2023 (12:16 pm)

          You don’t get out of following the US constitution by winning an election by 3%, sorry. You still have to honor our speech rights when we are in the opposition, no matter how much you’d prefer to arrest us all for disagreeing with you. Sorry not sorry.

    • Greg June 14, 2023 (5:48 pm)

      If someone paints a swastika on your property, you should report this.  This is a symbol of hatred.  Take pics, let someone know.  Police, WSB (media), neighbors, someone…  you are not alone.

    • Rhonda June 14, 2023 (8:36 pm)

      Gaslit, relax. What you described is still a gross misdemeanor. BTW, painting a swastika, even with chalk, on someone’s home would be a felony:The effect of this change is significant because it permits the City to continue enforcing violations involving property damage, a gross misdemeanor, under SMC 12.08.020(A)(1). Subsection (A)(2) of the ordinance remains enjoined, pending further order of the Court.

  • Unfortunate June 14, 2023 (4:25 pm)

    It stinks that the police caused this to happen due to them selectively (IE: unconstitutionally) enforcing it. If they hadn’t used the law as a way to punish protesters that they didn’t like this wouldn’t have happened.

  • Mr J June 14, 2023 (4:31 pm)

    The police were never doing anything about graffiti. If you reported to them they passed you onto the City that followed-up with a letter saying you have 2 weeks to clean it up or face steep fines. It’s all a big joke.

    • Odd son June 14, 2023 (4:54 pm)

      Agreed. I have reported graffiti with find it fix it and the process is incredibly slow. It could be a full time job for a citizen to report graffiti and bug city employees to reopen incorrectly closed tickets, etc. I have had one case of many I have filed languish for 6 months. There obviously is no fine. The city employees want to “work “ with the property owner. All that does is reward procrastination and laziness. Not to mention the city should not have to get involved in the first place because property owners should follow the law and clean or cover graffiti asap. Plus, the longer it stays the more the taggers win.

  • Don't tell me what to do June 14, 2023 (4:44 pm)

    Hey, Sim: Please give me the money to paint damage to my property.

  • Jay June 14, 2023 (4:48 pm)

    Read the case, the graffiti was chalk on eco blocks.

  • Unfortunate June 14, 2023 (5:26 pm)

    On a lighter note, I’m a fan of whoever “GOOEY” is. It always gives me a smile when I see that while I’m driving on the highway.

  • Admiral-2009 June 14, 2023 (5:28 pm)

    Wow – if the police do not intervene what recourse does a property owner have?  If the police and law do nothing, I can foresee a frustrated property owner taking matters into their own hands with a simple argument they had no alternative to protect their property without incurring cost and time to clean up the mess!

  • Marina June 14, 2023 (6:02 pm)

    I will add WSB that I’m not criticizing YOUR investigative journalism and that I will be ecstatically happy to be wrong about this one (and have my friends be wrong about it too). Unless it gets clarified and resolved quickly, no enforcement of all property crimes will just be too much and possibly the final straw.

    • WSB June 14, 2023 (6:39 pm)

      I just added the clarification.

      • Marina June 14, 2023 (6:58 pm)

        Nice! Still not great, but I’ll take property damage enforcement. 

  • Easy Fix June 14, 2023 (6:08 pm)

    Seems like there’s a pretty easy fix here. Make the Law as it relates to public property specific to paint and semi-permanent markings. Leave the law as applied to private property as is.  If we have a rash of large scale chalk graffiti on public property emerge as a result (unlikely) we can deal with that issue later (e.g., enact a law requiring the party responsible to remove it within x number of days; and regardless, it’s pretty easy to clean up). Problem solved. Move on. 

  • WSCurmudgeon June 14, 2023 (6:13 pm)

    As “Jay” repeatedly urges above,  read the [Expletive Deleted] case and especially the judge’s findings.

    Publicola has a succinct one page summary of the facts, the case, and what’s likely to resolve this situation. 


  • WSB June 14, 2023 (6:38 pm)

    Please note the clarification from the City Attorney’s Office just added, reaffirming that this is only meant to cover graffiti vandalism, not other property damage.

  • WSB June 14, 2023 (6:44 pm)

    Also just added, here’s the notice that says it only is meant to apply to the graffiti section (2) not property damage otherwise (1):

  • Jeff June 14, 2023 (7:05 pm)

    Aren’t there way more important things to worry about? Graffiti really doesn’t bother me that much. And yes I have to deal with it from time to time.

    • SlipperySlope June 14, 2023 (8:56 pm)

      Yes, there are. But there has to be an underlying theme of accountability for actions that cause harm/cost/etc to others. Graffiti doesn’t bother you? Great. How about the homeowner who isn’t able (physically or financially) to clean it? Or the business owner trying to make ends meet who has to pay for service or labor to clean it? Does shoplifting bother you? Probably not. But it bothers the shop owners, who lose money/inventory over and over again.  It also bothers the employees, who risk their safety if they choose to intervene.  It’s a slippery slope, Jeff.  What’s the tipping point for you?

  • Azimuth June 14, 2023 (7:39 pm)

    I know what I’m doing this weekend!

    • Me too!!! June 15, 2023 (12:27 pm)

      Me too, and I’m going to skip paying my car registration, and I’m going to start walking out of stores with stuff if the lines are too long.  This is ridiculous – I guess we’ll find out what a society based on no laws is like.  Maybe it will work out, because at their core, human beings are truly decent right?  

  • Steve June 14, 2023 (11:30 pm)

    How about grafitti isn’t protected speech when it’s on someone else’s property. Can I carve a swastika on someone else’s forehead? If you don’t own the canvas, nuts to you.

    • Jay June 15, 2023 (8:12 am)

      Doesn’t that seem like a dramatic overreaction to a court saying Seattle can’t arrest people for drawing on public eco blocks with chalk?

  • Rick June 15, 2023 (7:40 am)

    What we have here is a case of inmates running the asylum.

  • Scarlett June 15, 2023 (9:03 am)

    A time may be coming when graffiti may be the ONLY uncensored, un-monitored form of speech.  Think about it before you reflexively stake a position on this issue.  Think very, very carefully about where we are headed as a society and whether you are willing to put up with some inconvenience to protect free speech.  

    • Easy Fix June 15, 2023 (11:04 am)

      I don’t need to think really hard about this issue at all. Graffiti as the only uncensored, unmonitored form of speech? That hyperbole to the extreme.  You can always stand on a street corner with a sign. I already saw first hand the effects of this law. Getting off the water taxi this morning on the Seattle side – three teens/twenty somethings tagging the work on the new ferry building with complete impunity. They were literally walking down the sidewalk and stopping as a group and tagging the building and the fence as they went (with the larger one in the group menacingly staring down anyone who stopped or looked like they were thinking of intervening).  Totally and completely unacceptable.  

      • Scarlett June 15, 2023 (1:48 pm)

        “You’ve been living in a dream, Neo”


    • let's all think June 15, 2023 (12:36 pm)

      I think we should all think very, very carefully about where we are headed as a society and a slippery slope to lawlessness does not bode well.On a positive note this does give my kids something to do over the summer when they get bored, I suppose.

  • Mark32 June 15, 2023 (4:43 pm)

    Two things I noticed in Boise last week, how smooth the roads were and the lack of graffiti.Just say’in.

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