Crime & Courts

NC lawmakers move to make graffiti a felony

Graffiti vandals could land in prison under a bill that would make repeatedly marking up buildings a felony.

The state Senate gave preliminary approval in a 42-7 vote to a proposed law that expands and toughens graffiti penalties. A final vote is expected Wednesday in the Senate.

Current law covers statues, monuments and public buildings. Tagging public property is a Class 2 misdemeanor, with the stiffest penalty for five or more convictions two months in jail.

House Bill 552 would extend the protection to any property. The severity of the offense is stepped up to a Class 1 misdemeanor, with a minimum $500 mandatory fine.

Graffiti would become a class H felony if committed by a person with two or more prior convictions, or if done by a person who commits five or more violations within 60 days. Graffiti is defined as the unlawful writing, scribbling, marking, painting or defacing of property, buildings or facilities with any type of pen, paint or marker.

A class H felony requires a minimum sentence of four to five months in prison or an equal term of supervised probation.

The bill was requested two years ago by Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore, said Rep. Charles McGrady, one of the bill’s sponsors.

The graffiti felony was part of a big regulatory reform bill that passed the House last year, McGrady said, but the provision did not make it through the Senate.

Moore, who is now retired, made the case that the existing penalties aren’t enough to stop people from defacing property, McGrady said. The bill is “more of a tool to deal with repeat offenders,” he said.

Prosecutors, as always, have discretion in how they deal with repeat offenders, he said. And recent laws have made it easier for people convicted of nonviolent crimes to have their records expunged, said McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican.

It’s possible the increased penalties will add costs to the court and prison systems, a fiscal analysis said. But those costs could not be estimated.

Reports on “Asheville’s war on graffiti” have filled local newspapers, blogs and television in the mountain city. Last year, the City of Asheville sponsored a program that paid part of the costs for private property owners to clean up graffiti on their buildings.

“This is a major problem in Asheville,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican.

Earlier this year, Raleigh police, according to warrants, used video cameras and stakeouts that led to charges against two people accused of painting train cars and a rail bridge near Atlantic Avenue.

Tough graffiti penalties were not a part of the city of Asheville’s formal legislative agenda, however.

Raleigh and Charlotte police department spokesmen said they do not comment on pending legislation.

The bill passed the House unanimously last month but picked up opponents in the Senate. Sen. Joyce Waddell, a Mecklenburg Democrat, was one of the seven votes against it Tuesday.

“To make writing on a building a felony, I think, is going too far,” she said. “We have enough felonies to go around.”

Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, voted for the bill, saying he was sympathetic to its purpose, but asked for time to work on a change. It’s possible that someone could “do a single line of spray paint hitting five properties” and be charged with a felony, Stein said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to hang a felony around someone’s neck for this.”

If the bill passes with no amendments Wednesday, it would then go to Gov. Pat McCrory to be signed into law or face a veto. If changes are made, it would head back to the House.

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Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner