How the City Attorney’s Office might actually reduce graffiti

The City Attorney's Office in San Francisco is charged with handling court cases and drafting legislation at the behest of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — which is why lawyers there spend so much time pursuing hackneyed laws based on ideological whims.

Whether it is challenging the state's sole authority to issue handgun permits or fighting endless lawsuits over voter-approved changes to The City's welfare payment, City Attorney Dennis Herrera's staff has often been sent on quixotic legal journeys — and justly criticized here and elsewhere for wasting taxpayer money in the process.

But to give credit where credit is due, Herrera has come up with what may be a creative solution to help stop some of San Francisco’s most active and damaging graffiti practitioners. In doing so, he is stepping into an area where San Francisco criminal prosecutors have consistently failed to get results and essentially allowed chronic taggers to deface public and private property throughout The City.

Herrera announced Monday that his office had obtained a civil injunction against 20-year-old Carlos Romero, who had been arrested numerous times by police for spray-painting his familiar calling cards on light poles, signs and other city property. Under a court-ordered settlement, Romero has been barred from possessing spray paint and other graffiti tools and must stay away from the spots that he frequently tagged, and he has agreed to adhere to a curfew. The injunction will last for five years, and Romero has also agreed to pay restitution and fines totaling $20,000.

I usually shudder when I hear the words “a first for San Francisco,’’because it usually refers to some form of wacky social crusade being pursued by our public officials. But in this case the label is most welcome, since it’s a promising attempt to put the clamps on scofflaws who cost The City millions to clean up graffiti from homes, schools and public spaces.

In order to obtain the court order, Herrera’s office had to detail a pattern of behavior that constituted a public nuisance. That was not a problem, because San Francisco police had a long and detailed file on Romero, who mostly plied his color-coded trade in the Excelsior — but had no qualms about finding new sites to deface. And to get a sense of how active Romero must have been over the years, officials cited at least eight incidents of defacing public property that he admitted to as an adult — one can only imagine how much paint he may have spilled as a young teen.

Herrera said he hopes that the case will send a message to other serial taggers that city officials are serious about their desire to crack down on the graffiti blight.

“Would-be vandals should understand that if you can establish a pattern of public nuisances then the law allows for long-range civil penalties,’’ he said. “We are going to be aggressive and build these cases whenever we can. There is a complementary role for the civil system to play alongside the criminal courts.’’

Some cities have used civil penalties as a way of going after known gang members — an idea that Herrera said earlier this year he wants to pursue. The Romero case is sort of a dry run for his office to that end — a detailed, by-the-book account of how one person has exhibited a pattern of behavior and is found to be a public nuisance.

In a town where quality-of-life crimes are often dismissed by the judicial system, the graffiti injunction case — with its sizable monetary punishment — should at least remind some officials that there are avenues available to address behavioral problems that result in tax dollars being wasted.

One of the strongest arguments for vastly expanding The City’s network of surveillance cameras is that in addition to capturing outbreaks of violence in high-crime areas they can also be used in neighborhoods where graffiti is rampant and where illegal dumping is common.

After all, the so-called broken windows theory of good government, whereby officials go after known hotspots of urban blight to get cleaner and safer streets, generally works best when it’s known who is breaking the windows. In Romero’s case, he’s not even supposed to go within 100 yards of any intersection that he has been found to tag.

Romero has even agreed to tell his story in a public service announcement about the potential consequences of graffiti vandalism — at least for repeat offenders who get caught.

Apprehending chronic taggers appears to be the hard part for city officials, but when they do, they’ll at least have a legal outline on how and where to leave their mark.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.Bay Area NewsLocalNews Columnists

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