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Cruise around any urban neighborhood in America and you’re likely to see ample evidence of graffiti vandalism. In fact, it’s a growing problem in many cities across the country, including here in North Carolina. Last year, for example, the City of Asheville reported over 10,000 cases — more than double from the year before.
But despite the enormous costs involved in terms of time, labor and reduced property values that graffiti causes — authorities generally agree that it’s in the billions of dollars — it’s not considered a serious crime in the Tar Heel state. But legislation sponsored by Representative McGrady could change all that. House Bill 552 is scheduled to be discussed in the Judiciary Committee this afternoon. [UPDATE: The House passed Representative McGrady’s legislation unanimously on Wednesday, April 15. House Bill 552 now awaits Senate action.]
Graffiti vandalism involves the use of spray paint or permanent markers to publicly deface streets, sidewalks, walls, monuments and other structures and can include everything from simple words and symbols to elaborate, colorful displays that deface an entire side of a building. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice [Deborah Lamm Weisel, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, February 2002], graffiti crimes are typically committed by young males between the ages 15 to 23. Perpetrators can range from post-pubescent ruffians causing trouble to violent gang members marking their territory to radical activists looking to make some social or political statement.
Of course, some people even view graffiti as “street art” to be admired as a creative personal expression. “Anyone who glorifies graffiti needs to answer one question,” says Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald in a recent editorial in the New York Times. “If your home were tagged during the night without your consent, would you welcome the new addition to your décor or would you immediately call a painter, if not the police?”
People trying to combat graffiti argue that it destroys not only the individual rights of property owners but the shared values of a community. Unless officials act decisively to enforce the removal of graffiti from property (both public and private), the existing graffiti directly contributes to other areas becoming a target: a 2008 study by the University of Groningenin shows that graffiti and other forms of vandalism confirm what’s called the “broken windows” theory.
Entire neighborhoods are affected and become less desirable places to live, work and visit — all to the economic and social detriment of the city. Graffiti sends a signal that no one cares, and that attracts other forms of crime and delinquency. Graffiti can also decrease property values and business vitality, leading to blight within communities.
Cities like Asheville, Burlington, Cary, Charlotte, Fayetteville, Greensboro, and Wilmington, have all enacted local ordinances defining graffiti vandalism as a nuisance (like noise or trash) and which can carry civil penalties. Municipalities in North Carolina are given the authority to define and regulate nuisances within city limits by the state.
But current state law only addresses “wilful damage to property” as a nuisance and classifies it as a misdemeanor, leaving local governments with an essentially toothless enforcement tool. Even if vandals are caught, they are given a slap on the wrist and can return to their destructive activities the next day.
For now, municipalities in North Carolina are stuck with trying to balance private property interests with the abatement of this public nuisance. By law, cities cannot pass a local ordinance to create a new criminal offense, leading some city officials to call on the General Assembly to raise the criminal status and increase punishments for the crime.
In the 2013-2014 session, lawmakers attempted to address this problem with a provision in Senate Bill 594 (Omnibus Justice Amendments, Section 9.1.) which would have created a new criminal offense for graffiti vandalism, punishable as a felony. The bill was passed by the House (with very little Democrat support) and became stalled in the Senate Rules Committee.
House Bill 552 again attempts to strengthen property protections against all types of graffiti vandalism, whether private property or public property.
Under the proposed legislation, the misdemeanor charge will still be in effect for certain graffiti causing only minor damage, and the charge will include a $500 fine and a requirement that the perpetrator perform 24 hours of community service. However, when the cost to repair damage exceeds $1,000, and if the perpetrator is a repeat offender, he or she would be guilty of a Class I felony and could face up to a year in jail.