L.A. Tagging Crews Could Now Get Gang-Like 'Injunctions', Thanks to City Attorney's Settlement With MTA Vandals

The MTA's biggest and most infamous tag.
The MTA's biggest and most infamous tag.
jondoeforty1 via Flickr

L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich won a huge battle today in his war against the city's taggers and street artists.

He settled with eight alleged members of a prolific Los Angeles tagging crew called the "Metro Transit Assassins," responsible for America's largest tag along the L.A. River. The piece stretched a staggering 2,000 feet along the concrete basin.

Under the settlement, they'll each have to...

... pay the city "court-ordered restitution for past graffiti damage" (one defendant, for example, will pay $23,000), put in 100 hours of graffiti-removal community service and "state that he is no longer a graffiti vandal."

This, of course, is much better than paying city officials $3.7 million -- the amount they originally claimed it took to scrub off the giant block letters. And the two additional MTA defendants who didn't show up to court may still be tacked with million-dollar fines, according to Assistant City Attorney Anne Tremblay.

But ACLU attorney Peter Bibring, who represented one of the alleged taggers, says this settlement will likely have much greater consequences for the rest of the MTA crew -- and tagging crews in general.

At a hearing near the end of July, the judge in this case is expected to default on the settlement and implement an unprecedented "tagger injunction," much like a gang injunction, against MTA.

It would allow law enforcement to arrest known MTA members throughout the state of California for associating with the crew in public, possessing tagger tools (spray paint, markers, etc.) or violating a 10 p.m. curfew.

Bibring explains that because these eight taggers settled, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and the L.A. city attorney's office never had to actually prove that they did the damage.

"What the judge will acknowledge is that [the city attorney] alleged it, and no one contested it," says Bibring. "It's a problem in all these civil injunctions. Ultimately, this case will resolve without really testing the city's evidence."

Meanwhile, the city attorney's office is busting with pride over its "historic" victory:

As previously reported, the City prevailed on all constitutional issues raised by the ACLU in extensive court hearings held in this case, obtaining judicial confirmation that a "tagger injunction" is an appropriate legal tool available to law enforcement for addressing vandalism committed by tagging crews.

Pursuant to the settlements, and by default against the MTA tagging crew as an entity there will be an additional court hearing prior to the entry of final judgment. Most importantly, the MTA judgment will allow the City to serve and prosecute violations of this injunction on any additional or future members of the MTA crew identified by law enforcement.

Bibring, the ACLU attorney, says the danger in issuing a civil injunction against a tagging crew is that "this isn't a gang. Although [prosecutors] have a couple of incidents of violence listed in the complaint [against MTA], this isn't a tag-banging crew." Still, under an injunction, anyone associated with MTA would see "their ability to engage in perfectly lawful behavior" compromised.

The judge can technically ask more questions before issuing an injunction at the end of July. But Bibring says that "in most cases, when there's a default judgement, the person who filed suit gets what they sought."

MTA tagger "Smear" was the highest-profile defendant.
MTA tagger "Smear" was the highest-profile defendant.
Lyfetime via Flickr

Update, 1:30 p.m.: Bibring's client is well-known L.A. street artist Cristian Gheorghiu, nicknamed "Smear." He made headlines in March 2011 when sheriff's investigators raided his East L.A. home for art materials (aka "vandalism tools"), which they said signified his return to a life of crime.

Gheorghiu, however, claimed he had left tagging behind since his arrest in 2007. He was trying to make a legitimate career of graffiti art, but his scrawly street style raised suspicions.

Although Gheorghiu is freed by the new settlement, his ACLU attorney says that "if the city uses this injunction to apply to people who aren't currently defendants, and then use that to try to prevent that person from selling art, that raises clear First Amendment concerns."

Why? Because "you can't say someone who has previously engaged in a crime can't engage in certain kinds of expression in the future."

Below, the city attorney's original complaint.

lacityp_020682.pdf

[@simone_electra / swilson@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]


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