By KATE ELIZABETH QUERAM, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 30, 2008) - Graffiti artists convicted of tagging their turf could lose their driver's licenses, pending the passage of a bill brought before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday.
Spearheaded by Delegate Nicholaus R. Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, and co-sponsored by 19 delegates from both parties, the bill would give judges the power to suspend the licenses of first-offense taggers for up to six months and second offenders for a year, or until the age of 21. If the convicted party is not of driving age, the six-month penalty would begin on the day he or she becomes eligible to receive a license.
The bill also provides for restricted licenses, where drivers would only be allowed to travel to and from work or school.
Most graffiti offenders are between the ages of 15 and 23, and the crime's current penalties - fines, community service and possible jail time - don't phase most of them and may even be seen as badges of honor, Kipke said.
"I went to one of my high schools a couple of months ago and teens were really on me about vandalism at their school, so we had a dialogue about what to do to stop the problem," Kipke said. "Almost unanimously, they started talking about how the only privilege kids care about is their driver's license."
Anne Arundel County residents testified on the bill's behalf, saying graffiti is demoralizing to communities and expressing frustration about the lack of deterrence in the current penalties.
"We need to put some bite in the system, because there is no bite in the system," said Joe Millsap, chairman of the Pasadena Business Association's Vandalism Committee, and manager of a Pasadena supermarket. "As a businessperson, you repaint, repaint, repaint, and they just keep tagging it."
House Judiciary Committee Chair Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's, acknowledged the residents' concerns, but reminded Kipke that the committee usually doesn't pass legislation pertaining to driver's licenses unless there's a direct correlation to them - leaving a gas station without paying for gas, for example. The committee has not yet voted on HB 161, which has no Senate counterpart.
Others said the legislation may be unnecessary.
"Most of the testimony seemed to focus on juvenile offenders," said Lori Albin, director of legislation for the Office of the Public Defender. "If a juvenile is adjudicated delinquent or found involved with malicious destruction of property, the judge has the power, currently, to suspend their driver's license or restrict their driving privilege. So the bill is unnecessary."
Albin also expressed concern that in this case, the punishment wouldn't fit the crime. Currently, suspension of a license is limited to more serious crimes, like possession of explosives. "We have a concern about any bill that increases penalties, especially when you have a misdemeanor offense and the penalties are being equated with offenses that carry serious jail times and fines," Albin said.
For some residents, though, the punishment seems perfect.
"We are not cave dwellers drawing on walls," said Marion Brenna, president of the Bar Harbor Community Association and a Pasadena resident. "Most of us have evolved beyond that, and those who haven't certainly are not mentally equipped to be driving."