SAN DIEGO (AP) — A jury on Monday acquitted an activist of vandalism charges for chalking anti-bank slogans on San Diego sidewalks, delivering a swift verdict on a prosecution that the city's own mayor said was "stupid."
Jeff Olson, 40, turned to his attorney, nodded and smiled as verdicts were read on charges that could have sent him to jail for 13 years — one year for each misdemeanor count — and brought a $13,000 fine. He was charged with scrawling messages with water-soluble chalk on city sidewalks outside Bank of America branches from April to August 2012, including "Shame on B of A," ''No thanks, big banks," and a drawing of an octopus reaching for dollar bills.
The San Diego Superior Court jury deliberated five hours after a four-day trial that pitted Mayor Bob Filner against City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, who prosecuted the case. Jail time is highly unusual for graffiti convictions, which typically result in fines or community service.
Filner called it a "nonsense prosecution" that responded to complaints from Bank of America.
"It's washable chalk, it's political slogans," Filner said last week. "We're not even responding to the public's complaint ... I think it's a stupid case. It's costing us money."
The city attorney's office said it offered to reduce the charges to an infraction if Olson agreed to perform community service by cleaning up graffiti, but he refused. The office said the case was referred by the police department.
"Graffiti remains vandalism in the state of California," the city attorney's office said. "Under the law, there is no First Amendment right to deface property, even if the writing is easily removed, whether the message is aimed at banks or any other person or group. We are, however, sympathetic to the strong public reaction to this case and the jury's message."