Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

February 19, 2013

Bill looks at stiffer penalties for graffiti

By MANNIX PORTERFIELD
for the Daily Telegraph

CHARLESTON — Lecturing some new inmates, Deputy Barney Fife once laid down two rules at the Mayberry jail, and one was a warning against writing on cell walls, since it is difficult to erase such unsolicited scribblings.

Not only is it difficult, but if a second go-round of Sen. Evan Jenkins’ bill becomes law, it could be a crime anywhere in West Virginia to mark up a structure or wall with graffiti.

A year ago, Jenkins saw his bill attract a veto by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin over a technical flaw in the bill title, not out of any policy concern.

Co-sponsored with Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, the 2013 version was read for a first time Monday in the Senate, meaning it could be voted on Wednesday.

“We have a handful of municipalities that passed ordinances at the local level, and they’re all a little different,” Jenkins, D-Cabell, explained.

“It’s a patchwork of local laws relating to the graffiti. We have in our state code a very long list of property crimes. If you go and disturb a tree or a bush on a person’s property, that is a crime. We’ve never had a clear description in state code of graffiti, which is the unauthorized marking or defacing of property that you don’t own.”

If enacted and approved by Tomblin, the new version would make it unlawful to paint symbols, words, slogans and the like on private or government property.

Unlike the House rewrite that included a third offense making it a felony act, there is no attempt at that in the Jenkins-McCabe proposal.

“We know there’s an enormous amount of attention on prison population,” Jenkins said.

“This bill has never been viewed as a bill to try to lock folks up for graffiti.”

Huntington and other sizable cities have struggled with a proliferation of graffiti, but Jenkins said this is no longer a city issue.

“Unfortunately, in some really rundown areas these markings and etchings make our communities look trashy,” he said.

“We need to clean up our act. This is an important step in giving some tools for enforcement to hopefully address a problem.”

The penalties run through a wide range of fines and even community service in some instances, but there is no longer a felony section.

Graffiti runs the gamut from the innocuous to the vulgar to the racist.

“We all kind of know what graffiti is but we don’t have a definition in code that says what graffiti is,” the senator said.

“I can put graffiti all over the side of my house. It is unlawful under this bill? No, because I put it there with my approval. I own my house. People can still do what they want on their property.”