(RightWing.org) – The Seattle City Council enacted an ordinance, ON-102843, defining criminal conduct and other offenses, including the damage or destruction of the “property of another,” in June 1973. The measure, codified as SMC 12A.08.020 – Property destruction, prohibits people from writing, painting, or drawing any inscription or mark on public or private property owned by another person.
Bad actors can assert two forms of affirmative defense at trial.
- The arrestee believed they had a “lawful right to damage” the property.
- They had “obtained [the] express permission” of the structure’s owner or operator.
However, on June 14, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) posted an announcement advising that officers would no longer enforce the city’s misdemeanor property destruction law. Likewise, CBS affiliate KIRO 7 contributor Gary Horcher posted a tweet confirming that Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison would no longer prosecute anyone arrested for graffiti — at least for now.
Here’s what happened.
The Seattle City Attorney will NOT be prosecuting anyone arrested for graffiti—at least for now—after US District Judge Marsha Pechman issued an injunction.
The judge says Seattle’s property destruction ordinance is vague, targets speech and “poses a real threat of censorship.”
— Gary Horcher (@GaryKIRO7) June 14, 2023
Seattle Stops Enforcing Ordinance Protecting Citizens From Vandals
On January 4, 2023, four individuals filed a complaint in the US District Court for the Western District of Washington, claiming the SPD selectively enforced the city’s vandalism ordinance against them the previous year. They listed four claims in their petition: First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment violations under 42 US Code § 1983 and a Monell Claim seeking monetary relief for the SPD’s unconstitutional actions.
The complaints explained that SPD officers arrested the plaintiffs on January 1, 2022, after observing them placing political messages on the “eco-block” barricades temporarily erected around the department’s East Precinct Building. One of the individuals wrote the words “peaceful protest” on the wall, but court records don’t specify what the other three wrote. Notably, the incidents occurred during the Black Lives Matter/Antifa protests in the wake of George Floyd’s May 2020 death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
On June 13, US District Judge Marsha Pechman, a Clinton appointee presiding over the lawsuit, issued a temporary injunction barring the city from enforcing its vandalism ordinance. She ruled that the plaintiffs had shown a likelihood that they would win their case at trial, were likely to suffer “irreparable harm” without preliminary relief, and the order served the public interest.
Judge Pechman held that SMC 12A.08.020 was overly broad and “targets speech [and] poses a… substantial threat of censorship.” She also warned that the city ordinance swept “so broadly” that it “criminalizes” harmless drawings from a child’s rendition of a mermaid to messages written by the Seattle Police Foundation.
Additionally, Pechman wrote that the court agreed with the defendants’ claims that the public benefits from preventing “property damage and visual blight.” However, she noted that the “criminalization of free speech” outweighed those interests. In short, she held that the law’s overly broad language caused more harm than good.
The Seattle City Attorney’s Office said it would file a motion asking Pechman to reconsider the order.
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