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 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."
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'm going to think of a more creative way to get my message across," he said.
The judge, who imposed a gag order on participants during the trial, refused to allow Olson's attorney to argue that the messages were constitutionally protected free speech. Instead, the attorney argued the messages caused no damage and were not malicious.
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.