LAST May, 20-year-old Robert Singhass and a 19-year-old companion, both from Orange County, were convicted of going on a graffiti spree that defaced 36 public and private buildings in Fredericksburg, including “The Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862”—a popular mural on Sophia Street by Mirinda Reynolds honoring nearly 1,700 soldiers who died here during the Civil War.
Under a plea deal, the two men agreed to serve jail sentences (six months for Singhass) in exchange for prosecutors reducing or dropping felony charges against them. They also agreed to pay restitution and perform community service.
At the time, we questioned whether jail was an appropriate punishment for these spray-painting vandals. Judges and prosecutors should not let graffiti “artists” (i.e. criminals) off scot-free, we argued, but they shouldn’t be treated as a clear and imminent danger to the public either. Jail cells should be reserved for violent criminals and repeat offenders.
Then Singhass was accused of repeating his crime.
He’s now been indicted on 55 new misdemeanor destruction of property charges for allegedly spray-painting graffiti—again—on 56 structures in Fredericksburg between January and March of this year, in addition to numerous probation violations.
Following Singhass’ previous conviction, Judge Gordon Willis ordered him to come to Fredericksburg every weekend morning for a year to pick up trash as part of his community service.
But Singhaas allegedly bragged on social media that he spent the time drinking with homeless people instead of picking up trash, and Fredericksburg police allege that he is linked to a Feb. 29 incident in which the side of the Courtyard by Marriott hotel downtown was “tagged.”
Singhaas has not been convicted of the new charges, and like every American, he deserves the presumption of innocence.
But the case brings up an interesting theoretical question of what to do with non-violent defendants who not only fail to comply with a court order, but openly flout their disobedience on social media.
As we pointed out last year, this kind of behavior represents “a higher degree of lawlessness that indicates a disturbing lack of remorse and anti-social behavior that has a much higher chance of escalating to more serious criminal offenses.” Allowing such behavior also sets a very bad precedent that the community is not serious about enforcing the law.
Individuals who are convicted of a non-violent and relatively minor destruction-of-property crime for the first time—such as graffiti tagging—should be punished appropriately by having to perform some kind of community service and also making restitution to their victims, as Singhaas was ordered to do last year.
Of course, they need to be monitored to make sure they show up and actually do what the court ordered. This is hardly the time and place for an honor system. A police officer or parole officer should be in charge of supervising defendants and reporting back to the judge if (a) they don’t show up; (b) don’t perform the specified community service assignment: (c) don’t keep up their payment schedule to reimburse those they harmed; or (d) otherwise refuse to accept the consequences of their own actions.
If they fail to fulfill those obligations or have the gall to commit the same crime again and brag about it, the judge should throw the book at them. Graffiti tagging should not be a jailable offense, but contempt of court certainly is.