It ‘doesn’t look that bad’

Las Vegas attorney Edward “Ted” Marshall owns an aging warehouse on a concrete plain in downtown Las Vegas. The lot is fenced off, in places with barbed wire. But that hasn’t been enough to keep those who perpetrate graffiti from wriggling in and leaving their marks on the inviting walls.

Since 2004, Mr. Marshall says he has painted out the graffiti six times. Then someone painted something he kind of liked.

“It looked like a giant heart of some kind,” said Mr. Marshall, a former Clark County district attorney and one-time candidate for governor. “It covered the wall. It was very artistic. I decided, ‘Well, that graffiti doesn’t look that bad. Why not leave it there?’ “

But the city of Las Vegas has taken a different view: Graffiti is graffiti, and it has to go. And because Mr. Marshall didn’t cover the graffiti promptly, city enforcement agents issued him a $930 fine.

An incensed Mr. Marshall said that makes him a victim twice over. “I will not pay that $900 bill,” he told the council. “I will go to the Supreme Court before I pay a penny.”

Mayor Pro Tem Gary Reese, who represents the area that includes Mr. Marshall’s property, said the city has to hold the line on graffiti. “I don’t want graffiti on any buildings in the city of Las Vegas,” the councilman explains. “He said it was artistic or something, but for me, it’s a crime. For him to stand there and say he’s sick and tired and he’s going to leave it how it is — that’s bull crap.”

It’s like “any other situation where you have property damage,” city spokeswoman Mary Ann Price explains. “If you had a burned-out building … it creates a hazard. You as the property owner would be responsible for it.”

Really? A painted wall creates the same kind of “hazard” as a burned-out building or a garbage dump?

“Their definition of graffiti is any kind of painting that’s unauthorized,” points out Mr. Marshall, who is, after all, an attorney. If the property owner likes what’s painted there, who’s to say whether it’s “authorized”? It’s not illegal to paint a mural, is it? If it were, one wonders if the city itself might be in violation.

The whole issue is surprisingly simple, once viewed through the lens of property rights.

If eliminating graffiti in order to keep the town from looking like the set of one of those Mad Max post-apocalypse movies is a matter of high municipal priority, the city would be well within its rights to enact ordinances that increase the cost to such vandals.

If police manpower is really too scarce to stake out likely target sites and nab repeat perpetrators in the act, cash rewards could be offered for vigilantes who catch such thugs, allowing members of the Neighborhood Watch to dial a special hot line after making an apprehension. The reward could be reduced if the suspect’s thumbs are missing when police arrive, discouraging things from “getting out of hand.”

The city is also well within its rights to offer to spend municipal funds to paint over graffiti on private property if the owner agrees to permit access.

But the city is not within its rights to force such attentions on property owners who do not grant their permission, or to threaten to punish the victims of crimes.

Think where such a precedent could lead. Should residents whose cars are stolen be billed for the police expense of recovering their vehicles? For that matter, couldn’t we bill senior citizens for the added costs in police and ambulance manpower when old people are beat over the head during night-time ATM robberies?

Punishing crime victims is ridiculous, pernicious, disgusting, and hardly “good public policy,” whether the crime of which they have been the victim is rape, assault or property defacement.

Municipal authorities should present themselves as the helpful allies of beleaguered property owners, not accessories after the fact to those who impose costs on these law-abiding citizens against their will.

Mr. Marshall says it could be a while before he files suit. In the meantime, he says he might try another response. The city code defined graffiti as an “unauthorized inscription, insignia, symbol, word, figure, character or design” placed on a structure, he points out. “If I were to authorize people to paint on the wall, there’s nothing they could do about it,” he said. “Have a contest: Who can paint the best portrait of the City Council?”

Sounds good to us.


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