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San Diego jury acquits chalk protester in sidewalk graffiti case

A San Diego jury acquits a graffiti protester who chalked anti-bank slogans on sidewalks. It's also a win for Mayor Bob Filner, who criticized the city attorney for prosecuting.

July 01, 2013|By Tony Perry
  • Jeff Olson, 40, was found not guilty by a San Diego jury. He was charged with vandalism after he wrote protest slogans in chalk outside Bank of America branches.
Jeff Olson, 40, was found not guilty by a San Diego jury. He was charged with… (KGTV Channel 10 )

SAN DIEGO — Score one for Mayor Bob Filner in his continuing fight with City Atty. Jan Goldsmith — this time concerning Goldsmith's prosecution of a man who chalked protest messages on the sidewalk outside branches of Bank of America.

Filner, who came of age politically as a civil rights activist in the 1960s, had called the legal case "stupid" and a waste of taxpayer money. Goldsmith had defended the case as a simple, and legally justifiable, prosecution of graffiti vandalism.

On Monday, a Superior Court jury sided with the mayor — acquitting 40-year-old Jeffrey Olson of 13 misdemeanor counts filed by Goldsmith's office.

Goldsmith said he respected the jury's verdict but noted that the case went to trial only because Olson refused an offer to have the charges reduced to an infraction by doing community service cleaning up graffiti.

Olson had never denied writing slogans or drawing outside three bank branches.

One slogan said, "No thanks, big banks." Another, "Shame on Bank of America." In yet another, the bank was portrayed as an octopus grabbing at cash with its tentacles.

Courts have held that graffiti is vandalism even if, like chalk, it can be easily washed off, Goldsmith said.

That Bank of America had contacted the city attorney's office to urge prosecution had become part of the dispute between the Democratic mayor and Republican city attorney.

"We prosecute vandalism and theft cases regardless of who the perpetrator or victim might be," Goldsmith said. "We don't decide, for example, based upon whether we like or dislike banks. That would be wrong under the law."

Filner has criticized Goldsmith over issues large and small. Earlier this year, he blasted the city attorney's prosecution of a pro-seal activist for removing a sign at the Children's Pool beach in La Jolla.

As the chalk case approached trial, Filner sent a memo to Goldsmith calling it "an abuse of power that infringes on [the] 1st Amendment."

At trial, however, Judge Howard Shore said Olson's lawyer could not invoke the 1st Amendment as a defense. As the dispute flared at City Hall, Shore last week imposed a gag order on all parties.

"This is a nonsense prosecution and I will continue to say that," Filner said Friday.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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