The increase in graffiti vandalism across the City of Albuquerque is a damn shame and preventable.
Over eight years ago, we had a handle on it and reduced it significantly when I was a
Deputy City Attorney and as Director of the Safe City Strike Force.
Back then, the City was spending $500,000 a year with 4 cleanup crews to clean up the vandalism.
Today, the City is spending $1.1 million a year to clean up graffiti vandalism.
What is so upsetting is that there are so many other much better uses the $1.3 million spent on graffiti
vandalism cleanup could be used for such as libraries, services for the homeless, senior citizen services
and perhaps child care services.
The answer to combating graffiti vandalism is to find the little vandals and sue them and their parents.
You would be surprised how quickly the graffiti will stop.
NATURE OF GRAFFITI VANDALISM
The term “tagger” is used by law enforcement to describe anyone who engages in graffiti vandalism.
Graffiti is defined under city ordinance simply as “unauthorized painting, writing or inscription” on property.
The act of graffiti is a misdemeanor by itself, but the resulting property damage is actionable, civilly for cleanup costs and criminally as criminal damage to property.
Depending on the total amount of damage, criminal damage to property can be a felony.
Graffiti vandals in general fall into two types:
1. Gang members or gang member “wannabees” who want to mark their territory and who are competing with rival gangs.
2. Individuals who consider themselves “artists” and who want to express themselves.
The profile of a tagger, with few exceptions, is a young boy between the ages of 12 and 17 with a single mom trying to raise them or an adult between 18 to 21 years old.
The overwhelming majority of taggers are male teenagers between 12 and 15 years old.
To a tagger, the most important thing is “getting it up” or “putting it up” their tag on as many surfaces as possible to be seen by the public.
Individual tags are also referred to as “throw ups”.
“Bombing” is when a tagger which is saturates an area with a tag name or symbol using spray paint or markers.
The style or signature that a tagger uses is what is important to a tagger.
Taggers take great pride in their vandalism and often maintain portfolios taking photographs of their tags, putting the photos in binders, which are called “piece books”.
The piece books contain tag names or “pieces” which are names or designs they tag.
Colored pudgy balloon like letters are a favorite design of many younger taggers because of the ease and quickness to tag and being able to quickly escape from an area tagged.
Another popular tag design is the spidery street scrawl letter design.
It is common for a tagger to render their design to paper before actually doing the design on a much larger surface or wall.
Arroyos, concrete diversion channels dumpsters are popular tagging targets as are fences, walls and sides walls in alleys and store fronts.
Some individuals who tag their name using markers and spray paint also deface windows using etching tools such as glass cutters or etching acid.
Taggers have an assortment of tips or nozzles which they switch out on their spay cans of paint, which allows the individual to control the stream of paint in an array of thickness for when they are bombing or tagging.
A tagger often carries aerosol cans, markers, and an assortment of tips and cameras to take photos of their tags in backpacks.
FINANCIAL COSTS OF GRAFFITI VANDALISM, EXTENT OF THE PROBLEM AND LAWSUITS FILED
Graffiti done with etching acid can be very costly.
I had 30 to 40 business store fronts hit at one time and the cost of replacing the glass was about $35,000.
Graffiti done with paint can also be very costly. I had a prominent business on San Mateo spending thousands to repaint outside walls.
The City of Albuquerque spends approximately $1.5 million dollars a year for graffiti removal or for cleanup costs.
The graffiti hot line and 311 call center receives processes thousands of calls a year.
The money spent by the City to clean up graffiti vandalism could go to much better uses like helping the homeless or operating our libraries and senior citizens centers, if we could only put a stop to it.
NEW MEXICO LAW AND CITY ORDINANCES
Graffiti vandalism is both criminal act and can result in a civil cause of action for property damage.
Under New Mexico law, unauthorized graffiti “consists of intentionally and maliciously defacing any real or personal property of another with graffiti … with ink, paint, spray paint, crayon, or charcoal [or acid] without consent” of the property owner. ( See 30-15-1.1, NMSA)
Unauthorized graffiti damage of less than $1,000 is a petty misdemeanor and graffiti damage in excess of $1,000 is a felony. (See 30-15-1, B and C)
Under New Mexico law, “criminal damage to property consists of intentionally damaging any real or personal property of another without consent of the owner of the property”. (See 30-15-1, NMSA)
Under New Mexico law, any parent, guardian or custodian having custody and control over a child who has maliciously or willfully injured a person or who damaged, destroyed or deprived use of property of another may be sued for up to $4,000 in the damages caused by the child. (32A-2-27, NMSA)
In 2004, the City of Albuquerque enacted an ordinance that prohibits anyone who owns, manages or operates a place of business from the sale of spray paint to any person under the age of 18. (12-4-15 City of Albuquerque Ordinances)
LAWSUITS WERE EFFECTIVE WITH PROVEN RESULTS
As a Deputy City Attorney, I filed 121 civil lawsuits against well over 3391 taggers and their parents to collect damages to City property and for the graffiti cleanup costs and restitution.
It is my understanding the City stopped the lawsuits when I left in 2009, but the City is still spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for graffiti cleanup.
This is the way the vandalism lawsuits worked: I relied on the APD Gang Unit to identify the taggers, catalog their tags by taking pictures of the tags and have City Waste Management clean up the graffiti. An invoice for the cleanup costs would be generated. The photos and invoices were then attached as exhibits to the civil lawsuits for property damage and graffiti vandalism.
Under New Mexico statutory law, a parent can be held personally responsible and liable for up to $4,000 damages done by their child.
Over a two-year period, I filed in State District Court civil lawsuits for graffiti vandalism and property damage against “taggers” and their parents.
A total of 272 taggers along with 139 of their parents were sued for a total of 391 individuals.
$92,358.41 in restitution from the taggers was collected along with an additional $63,000 in judgments secured, with the taggers put on a monthly payment plans.
1,340 hours of community service was performed by the taggers.
Part of the settlement agreements would include meeting with the tagger monthly and requiring the kid to stay in school and maintain a “C“ average.
I settled virtually all the lawsuits with the taggers and their parents after meeting together with them in private.
I saw too many young single moms trying to make a living and deal with out of control kids.
I would ask the parent for one hour with them and their kid, and if I could give a wakeup call to the kid, the parents usually appreciated it.
Raising two sons gave me a lot of experience talking to stubborn teenage boys. There were a lot of tears to say the least.
All too often, I felt more like a social worker and not an attorney, but it was very rewarding because I felt I was having an effect on young people lives and they stopped the graffiti.
The most graffiti damages I ever sued for was $200,000 in damages and it was an Albuquerque Journal front page story. His tag was “dome”, he was about 17 when we first met, unemployed and he admitted to me he had substance abuse problem. I recall settling the lawsuit with him for about $15,000, put him on monthly payments plan, helped him find a job, and required him to go to CNM. He turned his life around, got clean, stopped the tagging and paid off the settlement over three years.
I remember another tagger and taking his car, it was a Junker and worth about $500, as restitution and he stopped his tagging.
The settlements were never about collecting the money. Most if not all of the taggers and their parents were judgment proof who had no assets. It was all about stopping the vandalism.
There is a big difference between punishment and requiring restitution for intentional vandalism. I did not feel I was punishing these kids, but making them take responsibility for their actions and holding them accountable and responsible for their conduct.
The taggers were made to pay for the damages themselves and they did so when they realized mom or dad would have to pay for their vandalism if they did not.
Many kids had to get part-time jobs; some even sold their “game boys” to raise money.
If I had wanted to punish them, I would have filed criminal charges for vandalism and sought time in the juvenile detention, but I never did like that option.
The City Attorney’s Office needs to start filing lawsuits for graffiti vandalism again.
It is not the most glamorous type of practice of law, but it is damn well the most rewarding work one can have as an attorney if you can have an effect on one Kids life and maybe help a struggling parent.