On Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office crowed about a so-called settlement reached with eight alleged members of the “Metro Transit Assassins,” which the city accuses of being responsible for approximately $10 million annually in damage through graffiti tagging — $3.7 million for one piece in particular — the large “MTA” painted in the Los Angeles riverbed. This settlement will have a profound impact on the civil rights of street artists statewide, potentially exposing anyone the police deem an MTA “graffiti vandal” to sentencing without trial.
In June 2010, the City Attorney’s office filed a civil complaint against the Metro Transit Assassins and eleven people it identified as members, then superseded that in October 2010 with an even harsher version. The MTA was identified as an “unincorporated association,” and some of those sued were widely known former street artists whose fame had launched them into highly respected commercial careers.
What the city obtained through Wednesday’s settlement is a modified “gang injunction” which will apply to anyone in California assumed by the police to be an associate of the MTA.
“Most importantly,” claims the City Attorney’s Office’s press release, “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.” That is, anyone in the entire state of California.
That’s right: Now or in the future, if the police identify you as an associate of the MTA, you can be arrested for possessing spray paint or markers, staying out past 10 p.m., or associating with other supposed members under this “tagger injunction.”
The defendants are now prohibited from publically associating with other alleged members of the MTA. They are prohibited from possessing “graffiti tools” — art supplies. Although they are adults, they are required to obey a 10 p.m. curfew. They also have to pay the city restitution for past graffiti damage, perform 100 hours of graffiti-removal community and “state that he is no longer a graffiti vandal.” Finally, each will be required to help law enforcement investigate and prosecute other graffiti artists.
The source of the new statewide enforcement powers is the fact that the MTA has no leadership or board of directors, or at least none willing to come forward and defend the “unincorporated association,” which was named as a defendant. Since the entity could or did not defend itself in court, a default judgment will be entered against it after a short hearing in July — meaning the city simply wins.
The ACLU, representing one commercially successful former street artist, challenged this injunction on several grounds, including due process and freedom of expression. Those constitutional objections were rebuffed by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge in May.
Nevertheless, “[t]his marked a significant expansion of the use of civil injunctions because it was not against a street gang and because, second of all because, it sought to prohibit First Amendment expressive activity,” said a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California.
- L.A. Weekly Arts News blog, “L.A. Tagging Crews Could Now Get Gang-Like ‘Injunctions’, Thanks to City Attorney’s Settlement With MTA Vandals,” Simone Wilson, June 20, 2012
- KPCC Southern California Public Radio, “MTA taggers agree to ‘graffiti injunction,'” Erika Aguilar, June 21, 2012
- KPCC Southern California Public Radio, “Judge rejects challenge to LA graffiti crew injunction,” May 27, 2011