Sunday, February 28, 2010

Trutanich Sends SuperGraphic Scofflaw to the Slammer

Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich has shown how serious he is about fullfilling a campaign promise to bring some semblance of control to the illegal billboards and supergraphics that blights much of the City in flagrant violation of the City's laws - he filed a criminal case against Kayvan Setareh, the alleged owner of the Hollywood First National Building on the north-east corner of Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard, as reported in the LA Times.

Although the supergraphic attached the building allegedly owned or controlled by Setareh advertises the new DreamWorks Animation movie "How to train your Dragon," it is not clear whether DreamWorks Animation were aware of the fact that the advertisment is illegal.

According to the Times, Setareh was arrested on Friday night by LAPD at his Pacific Palisades home, and taken into custody on $1M bail.  The arrest and high bail brought a slew of accolades for the City Attorney from residents tired of the shenanigans and blatent disregard for community values dislayed by the ilegal billboard and supergraphic companies.

However, not all the comments were complimentary and it looks very much like 'deja vu all over again,' with the illegal sign industry presenting edited versions of the same hackneyed arguments that the drug-dealer backed illegal marijunana shop owners were presenting a few weeks ago when Trutuanich clamped down of the City's out of control marijuna shops.

Just as with the illegal marijuana shops, there is big money to be made in illegal signs - billboards and supergraphics. Where the marijuana shop owners claimed cancer and aids patients were being victimized, the illegal sign companies are claiming Setareh is a 'victim' and that his $1M bail is too high.

Of course $1M is a lot of bail. It's typically the standard bail for a murder or kiddnap. However, high bail is not the exclusive domain of violent crime. Crimes that present serious risks to public safety justify high bail, and according to the Times, there are serious risks with these oversized vinyl sheets that cover 8 floors of the historic building.

It is unknown what the effect of a high wind would be. Could it cause the massive vinyl sheet to fall down? Could it act like a sail and pull part of the ancient buildinf down? In the event of a fire, would it impede firefighter access to the building? Could it trap building occupants from escape through windows covered by the large vinyl sheets?

All of these are valid safety concerns that the illegal sign companies are minimizing. But the City's Department of Building and Safety and the Fire Department are far from satisfied that covering buildings with vinyl is safe, and they have refused to issue permits to Setareh.

It was public safety concerns that doubtless persuaded a Superior Court Judge to issue the arrest warrant for Setareh with the unusually high bail sought by Trutanich. And while it appears that Setareh has not posted the bail and remains in custody, the legal process requires a Bail Commissioner to also review the bail and order a reduction if appropriate. No such alteration appears to have been ordered even though a Bail Commissioner is available at all times, even at the weekend.

Just like the drug dealer-backed marijuana shop lobbyists, the illegal sign advocates have been trying hard to convince the public that the incarceration of Setareh is somehow unlawful because it exceeds the bail schedule for 'typical' crimes. However, California Penal Code Section 1275(a) makes it clear that higher bail than that in the schedule is justified where bail is set by a judge or magistrate.

Penal Code 1275(a) reads as follows:
"In setting, reducing, or denying bail, the judge or magistrate shall take into consideration
  • the protection of the public, 
  • the seriousness of the offense charged, 
  • the previous criminal record of the defendant, and 
  • the probability of his or her appearing at trial or hearing of the case. 
The public safety shall be the primary consideration."

So public safety is the primary consideration according to the law, and it will take a very brave judge to rule that the risks posed by the 29,000 square foot vinyl supergraphic are minimal.

Despite the public safety issue, Loyola Law School professor Laura Levenson told the Times that she would be surprised if a judge lets such a large bail stand.

"There's something more to this that I think is going on," Levenson said. "Either he has prior offenses or he was warned about not doing this."

The Times reported that the City Attorney's Office had warned Setareh via letter and e-mail not to post an unpermitted supergraphic on the building, so at least one of Levenson's justifications for high bail are met. As for whether Setareh has prior convictions, that will be revealed when he appears before a judge on Monday morning for arraignment.

 But regardless of the issue of the high bail and the fact that Trutanich has succeeded in getting the attention of the illegal sign industry, many wonder why someone like Setareh apparently is so willing to break the law.

The answer is of course money. And just like the illegal marijuana shop business, it is big money. As can be seen from the graphic below, the location of the DreamWorks Animation supergraphic is directly in the line of the TV cameras and paparazzi that will descend on the red carpet to film celebrities as they arrive for the Oscars ceremony next week.

Although the Times reported that monthly revenue from a supergraphic could be as high as $100,000, the strategic location of the Hollywood First National Building and the massive tv and magazine coverage that accompanies the Oscars is such that almost every picture and tv image from the Oscars will include the supergraphic on Setareh's building. In those circumstances, unconfirmed rumors that say agents were seeking $650,000 for one month's rent at the building seem credible.

There's no question, the illegal sign industry is a high profit, high stakes business. So don't complain when the cost of breaking the law is more than a slap on the wrist and fine. Breaking the law to make a lot of money is no more the right of the illegal sign business than it is the illegal marijuana shop business. There is a law that regulates both industries, just as it regulates the lives of ordinary Los Angelenos. Nobody should be above the law.

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