Monday, July 01, 2013

Activist who chalked anti-bank slogans on San Diego sidewalks found not guilty on all charges

What was City Attorney Jan Goldsmith thinking?

Acquitted on all 13 counts of vandalism, jury says Jeff Olson should be free
A review of the plea-deal offers deputy city attorney Hazard said were fair
Dorian Hargrove
San Diego Reader
July 1, 2013

With each of the 13 "not guilty" verdicts, defense attorney Tom Tosdal grabbed Jeff Olson's shoulder in a sign of support and relief. On Monday, jurors rejected all 13-counts of vandalism charges filed against Olson for scribbling anti-Bank of America messages in water soluble chalk.

It was a good day for Olson and Tosdal and for free-speech supporters across the country.

Not so much so for San Diego's City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, his office, and for Superior Court Judge Howard Shore.

After the verdicts were read, Judge Shore explained the reasoning behind his decision to bar Tosdal from using first amendment rights as a defense as well as for placing a gag order on the defendant prohibiting him from speaking to the media.

"The media set the tone in this case by talking about a potential 13-year sentence. It had a tendency to infuriate the public instead of informing it. Anyone in the system, the lawyers and anyone involved, knew that maximum sentence would never be handed out but still it was reported."

Outside the courtroom Paige Hazard, the lead prosecutor on the case, also dismissed media reports and blamed Olson for turning down what she said were fair plea offers.

Hazard's comments were later backed-up by an official statement from the City Attorney's Office which criticized Olson for forcing the City's hand and taking the case to trial.

"As with most graffiti cases, Mr. Olson was offered reduction to an infraction after completing volunteer work service cleaning up graffiti," read the statement. "His refusal resulted in the trial and his successful defense."

Looking at those offers, however, fair is one of the last words that comes to mind.

On May 16, Hazard told Olson the City would drop the case if he agreed to serve 32-hours of community service, attend an 8-hour seminar by the "Corrective Behavior Institute," pay Bank of America $6,299 in restitution for the clean-up, waive all Fourth Amendment rights guarding against search and seizures, and surrender his driver's license for three year period."

Olson refused.

So on June 18, as the June 25 trial date neared, Hazard offered Olson another deal.

Olson would plead guilty to one count of vandalism, agree to serve three-years probation, pay restitution --amount undetermined, spend 24-hours cleaning up graffiti, and surrender his driver's license for 2-years.

"I didn't see how that was fair," said Olson a few hours after the trial. "Why should I have to give up my license for two-years and serve 3-years probation just for exercising my first amendment rights? It's sad to see the City Attorney's Office now laying the blame on me for wasting taxpayer resources. It was their decision to take this to court, not mine."

Olson, able to speak freely without fear of violating Judge Shore's gag order, said the whole thing was never supposed to go this far.

"All I wanted to do was ask that people invest in San Diego, not some big Wall Street bank based in Charlotte, North Carolina. For me, it's the same when it comes to simple things like beer or produce. I choose to keep my money locally. I say that proudly, a Stone Craft beer in hand. I choose to buy my produce at the local farmer's market, not some major supermarket. These are fairly simple choices that can help build a sustainable economy here, in San Diego."

Activist who chalked anti-bank slogans on San Diego sidewalks found not guilty on all charges
Associated Press
July 1, 2013

SAN DIEGO — 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 it respected the verdict, which it said 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."

Olson, who was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, said he was relieved by the outcome and that the prosecution brought more attention to his views than he ever imagined possible.

"I couldn't have done better if I rented an airplane with a banner and put billboards up all over town," he said.

Still, he isn't planning on more sidewalk scrawls.

"I going to think of a more creative way to get my message across," he said.

The prosecution was the latest tiff between San Diego's mayor and elected city attorney. Earlier this year, the mayor was a witness at a trial on behalf of an animal-rights activist for seals who was prosecuted for removing a flag at a beach that was declared open to the public. After the testimony, activist Bryan Pease pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trespassing.

Filner, who last month used his veto power to cut $500,000 from the city attorney's budget, crashed a Goldsmith news conference in February amid a dispute over how to spend money to promote tourism. Filner accused the city attorney of "unethical and unprofessional conduct," saying he was giving legal advice through news media.

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