Tag Team

At the time of his arrest, Daniel Polgreen, a.k.a. "Zion," was a law student at Hamline University with a penchant for graffiti. For nearly a year, Polgreen and a buddy, Matthew Adams Ford, had been followed by a private investigator concerned about tagging and the practice of "sniping," or stapling garage-sale notices or band announcements on trees and utility poles. Unbeknownst to Polgreen, Don Davis had been photographing Polgreen's exploits, and building a portfolio of his work to turn over to the Minneapolis Police Department.

On April 19, 1997, Davis spied Polgreen spray-painting a telephone utility box, and decided to make a citizen's arrest. He chased Polgreen, wrestled him to the ground, and held him until the police arrived. Polgreen failed to return City Pages' calls about this story, but court records show that when the cops searched him, they found a notebook filled with the names, phone numbers, and aliases of other graffiti artists.

The MPD had hit the jackpot. Ever since she first ran for office in 1993, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton had been promising to crack down on graffiti. One of her first mayoral acts was the formation of a graffiti task force, part of a larger strategy on the part of her administration to crack down on "gateway" or "broken-window" crimes. Targeting petty offenses such as graffiti, loitering, or public drunkenness, she and officials in other cities claim, keeps neighborhoods from falling into the kind of "disrepair and despair" that leads to more serious crimes.

New York was one of the first cities to crack down on gateway crimes, and when that city's homicide and assault rates plummeted, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani credited the broken-window approach. Sayles Belton raised the subject again while stumping for re-election last year, proclaiming, "Don't deface my space."

Needless to say, after Polgreen made the mistake of whipping out his spray paint in front of a graffiti-obsessed P.I., the city was primed to prosecute taggers with unprecedented zeal. As a result of the city's newfound willingness to pursue such relatively small crimes all the way to trial, he might become the first graffiti artist to serve jail time in Minneapolis.

This push for prosecution in what have previously been viewed as nuisance cases is cause for alarm to a number of criminal defenders. For starters, says Hennepin County public defender Sergio Andrade, the courts are overloaded, and holding trials for petty crimes only serves to leech resources from an already anemic system. "We're putting priorities on too many things at the same time," says Andrade. "Jails are already at capacity, and there's so much overcrowding that we're considering using the Armory. There's just not enough resources to go around. When I went to court this morning, there weren't enough judges available."

And there's no evidence that concentrating on gateway offenses has any effect on overall crime rates, says Joachim Savelberg, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. "We need to be somewhat skeptical of the claims about the efficacy of zero-tolerance measures," he says. "In other cities, violent crimes have reduced without any major criminal-justice reforms."

In Minneapolis, graffiti is categorized as a property crime. That, says Assistant City Attorney Carole Lansing, allows prosecutors to "aggregate" individual misdemeanor charges until they add up to a felony. For example, Lansing explains, imagine someone commits property crimes such as theft or vandalism costing $250, and then turns around and does another $251 worth of damage within six months. Charged as separate crimes, each incident is a misdemeanor. Charged together, because the damages total more than $500, the incidents become felonies. And that means that the defendant, if convicted, could end up in prison.

In Polgreen's case, the damages totaled thousands of dollars. Since the city of Minneapolis doesn't prosecute felonies, Lansing's office referred Polgreen's case to the Hennepin County attorney's office. There, prosecutors were determined to make the felony charges stick, says Carrie Dziedzic, the spokesperson for Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who is currently campaigning for the DFL gubernatorial endorsement. "The county has also been cracking down on nuisance crimes," says Dziedzic. "So we've been prosecuting these kinds of cases more vigorously."

After his April arrest, the Hennepin County attorney's office charged Polgreen with five felony counts of criminal damage to property. Dziedzic says that the county offered to let Polgreen plead guilty to three felonies and a sentence of 90 days in a workhouse, plus community service and restitution. But since Polgreen had no prior criminal history, if he were convicted he'd most likely be put on probation. So he and his attorney, Richard Leroy of the Legal Rights Center, decided to take their chances with a judge.

As it turned out, Judge Roberta K. Levy reduced the prosecutors' five felonies to one and charged the rest as misdemeanors. Polgreen then pleaded guilty to the remaining felony, and is scheduled to be sentenced in May. He faces up to a year in the workhouse.

Meanwhile, Ford is awaiting trial, as is at least one other alleged tagger caught as a result of the city's crackdown. If the practice of taking graffiti artists to trial continues, local attorneys predict it could bring Hennepin County courts to their knees. "This is completely ludicrous," says Kyle White, a St. Paul attorney who tries cases in Hennepin County. "We're already stretched thin, and this will only make matters worse."

Given the current backlog of cases, says Andrade, individuals who await trial in jail for these kinds of offenses will end up doing more time than if they'd pleaded guilty. "People in custody for a misdemeanor are supposed to go to trial within 10 days," he says. "But the way things are going, they could spend 15 days just waiting to get in front of a judge."

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