Battling the taggers

Lyndale neighborhood leaders urge city officials to hit graffiti vandals in the pocketbook

An underused, two-year-old Minnesota statute meant to make graffiti an expensive habit might eventually serve its purpose in Minneapolis.

Lyndale resident Jack Baker and a group of his neighbors drafted and introduced the statute, which enables public and private property owners to sue graffiti vandals for up to three times the damages. Up to $1,000 can be collected from the parents of juvenile offenders.

Since the law’s enactment in 2004, no civil graffiti cases have been brought to the Minneapolis attorney’s office, said City Attorney Jay Heffern. Baker said he wasn’t aware of any area residents who used the statute either, though one party told him he planned to.

“As of right now, there simply is no accountability for the vandals whatsoever,” said Baker, a member of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association’s (LNA) Graffiti Task Force. “We’ve got to find a way to use the statute to make [the vandalism] stop.”

As the number of graffiti reports continues to increase in Minneapolis, staff from the Minneapolis Police, Regulatory Services, Public Works departments and city attorney’s office are searching for a public case to test the untapped law.

The LNA has approved a resolution asking the city to go a step further by seeking private council to pursue public and eventually private cases – using funds from successful suits to pay attorney fees. The Kingfield Neighborhood Association (KFNA) approved the same resolution in May.

Not everyone thinks civil action is the way to beat graffiti, but the City Council, which recently approved an ordinance reducing graffiti cleanup time from 20 to 10 days, is looking for new solutions.

“We’re willing to try just about anything,” said City Councilmember Ralph Remington (10th ward).

Tagging the taggers

Difficulty identifying vandals and ensuring restitution are big reasons why graffiti hasn’t become a common topic in the courtroom for both civil and criminal cases.

Here’s a look at how the numbers stack up:

– The city received 12,383 reports of graffiti between April 2005 and April 2006, said Angela Brenny, clean city coordinator for Minneapolis. Of those, 2,542 were in Southwest.

– Each year, the city spends about $800,000 on graffiti cleanup, said Susan Young, director of solid waste and recycling services for Minneapolis.

– From 2001-2005, police made just 36 graffiti-related arrests, said 5th Precinct Lt. Susan Piontek.

Graffiti vandals generally do their work late at night, which makes it hard to catch them in the act, Piontek said. Police respond to calls quickly, but often find nothing but the graffiti. When arrests are made, witnesses don’t always testify.

“We lose a lot of cases that way,” Piontek said.

Assistant City Attorney Jessica Warren, who prosecutes graffiti vandals for the criminal division of the attorney’s office, said watchful citizens who are willing to testify are needed to win a criminal case.

“Unless an individual sees them and calls 911, it’s really hard,” Warren said.

But if a criminal case is won, civil cases are typically a “slam dunk,” she said.

Erik Nilssen, assistant city attorney in the civil division, said a civil suit could still be won without a criminal conviction. The burden of proof in a civil case is less than in a criminal one, he said, and a handwriting expert could be used to identify who created certain graffiti markings, called tags.

Tags are prevalent in Scott Moore’s neighborhood.

Pursuing private council

Moore, a member of the LNA Graffiti Task Force, is confident civil suits can help get rid of the tags he’s been cleaning up for years in the Lyndale neighborhood.

“Graffiti vandals need to know that there is an expensive price tag for their ‘artwork,’” Moore said.

The LNA and KFNA have both approved resolutions asking the city to seek private attorneys to sue vandals who damage public property.

A copy of the LNA resolution was sent to city councilmembers in January. KFNA sent its resolution in May. Moore said he wants to drum up support in other neighborhoods as well.

LNA and KFNA representatives say obtaining private council would give attorneys an opportunity to become experts at suing vandals. Once the expertise is cultured, they could take on private cases as well.

Kingfield Neighborhood Association President Erik Lindseth, an attorney himself, said he believes the city could find private council willing to work on contingency. Attorneys would work only when a case is available, he said.

“It’s incumbent upon the city to find strong cases,” he said.

Councilmember Remington, who is open to the idea of suing vandals, said finding private council that will operate solely on successful cases would not be easy because there is no guarantee of identifying graffiti writers or retrieving restitution.

“It looks great in theory, but it’s hard enough to collect from people who have been prosecuted,” he said.

City Council President Barbara Johnson (4th ward) said she also thought it was unlikely any private attorneys would take on the graffiti problem without knowing they’d be paid.

The city’s inability of ensuring solvable cases and damage recovery is a reason private council has not been sought, said City Attorney Heffern. The city would probably have to pay the attorneys for their services, as would residents who filed suit, he said.

Even putting out a request-for-proposals to find interested private attorneys wouldn’t be free, and it might not get any response, Heffern said. The LNA spent a year searching for willing attorneys, with no luck.

“We decided it made more sense if we had an appropriate case to use lawyers on my staff,” Heffern said.

Heffern said he is working with graffiti investigator Sgt. Donna Olson find a case his staff can pursue. Olson was on vacation and unavailable for comment before press time.

To sue or not to sue

Some business owners and residents who have been hit by graffiti vandals said they wouldn’t bother bringing a civil suit.

Lyndale resident Richard Novak, whose garage was painted in January, said he probably wouldn’t seek restitution for graffiti in court.

“It’s too much trouble, and I don’t know if it would solve anything,” he said.

David Gray, owner of Gray’s Leather at 3401 Nicollet Ave., said taggers routinely hit his shop, but he wouldn’t want to spend time in court or go through the hassle of trying to get money for damages. As a landlord, he said he hasn’t had much luck collecting money that is owed to him through the court system.

He said that, as a deterrent, he removes graffiti as soon as he sees it. The new city ordinance reducing graffiti cleanup time came about for the same reason.

Baker said current graffiti abatement efforts are not enough. Removing graffiti faster only encourages vandals to do their work faster, he said.

He’s hoping the city will find a way to take advantage of the statute he drafted two years ago by making civil suits an affordable and effective graffiti-fighting tool.

“I don’t believe in just throwing up our hands and saying there’s no solution,” Baker said. “There’s got to be a solution to this problem.”

Jake Weyer can be reached at 612-436-4367 and [email protected]