Sidewalk chalk activist lands in court
Union Tribune (2013-06-26) Trent Seibert
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Sidewalk chalk activist lands in court
City attorney: "graffiti is an issue that is very prevalent in San Diego"
By Trent Seibert6:02 p.m.June 26, 2013
The San Diego City Attorney’s office began making its case Wednesday against an activist who repeatedly scrawled anti-bank slogans on sidewalks outside three Bank of America branches using water-soluble children’s chalk.
Jeff Olson, 40, faces 13 misdemeanor vandalism charges for the way he made his views known. He faces up to 13 years in jail and $13,000 in restitution, although prosecutors say incarceration is rare in vandalism cases.
If the city loses the case, it might be chalked up to jurors who question if the city should be spending taxpayer money bringing charges against someone who plied his activism -- or vandalism -- using something that can be easily washed away with a hose.
During jury selection, Deputy City Attorney Paige Hazard asked 12 potential jurors if they thought the case against Olson was a poor use of taxpayer money. At least six hands shot up.
“I think this is a tremendous waste,” said one.
That view was echoed by Olson, who spoke to the U-T during a courtroom break.
“This is an unconstitutional overreach and a total waste of taxpayer money,” he said. “I’m am not going out on a limb to say that this is outrageous.”
The City Attorney’s Office sees the issue as dealing with quality of life for residents.
“People might look at it as one incident or one isolated person, but graffiti is an issue that is very prevalent in San Diego,” said Regan Savalla, the head of the Neighborhood Prosecution Unit, which oversees graffiti cases. “Whether that’s with chalk or paint or pen, we treat them all the same.”
Mayor Bob Filner has also expressed interest in the case and said he wants the City Council to discuss the expense of prosecution in a closed session meeting. Filner this week used his veto power to cut $500,000 from the City Attorney’s budget, and the office has indicated the neighborhood unit will bear the brunt of the cut.
“I believe this is a misuse and waste of taxpayer money,” Filner said in a June 20 memo to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith. “It could also be characterized as an abuse of power that infringes on First Amendment, particularly when it is arbitrarily applied to some, but not all, similar speech."
The docket for closed session is developed collectively by Filner, Goldsmith and City Council President Todd Gloria.
“Council President Gloria would be happy to hear the item at closed session, as well, as that is an appropriate venue for discussing ongoing legal cases,” said Katie Keach, a Gloria aide.
The mayor’s office did not respond to a U-T question asking if Filner will appear at Olson’s trial as a witness. Filner has appeared in a courtroom as a surprise witness in the past. In April, he appeared on behalf of an activist for seals at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla, where the City Attorney’s Office was prosecuting him on a petty theft charge.
Olson said he was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement and wanted to convince bank customers to move their money from mega-banks to non-profit community credit unions. He started by walking with a sign, and then took to chalk.
He drew his protest slogans from February 2012 to August 2012. The messages ranged from “stop big banks” to designs of octopus tentacles grasping wads of cash.
“What are they going to do next?” Olson attorney Tom Tosdal said. “Prosecute all the kids who play with chalk on the sidewalk?”
Olson and Tosdal agree with Filner that the chalk prosecution is a First Amendment case, but jurors will hear only about vandalism. Superior Court Judge Howard H. Shore granted a prosecution motion prohibiting Tosdal from invoking free speech or freedom of expression during the trial.
The defense claims that Bank of America pressured the City Attorney into bringing the charges -- something prosecutors deny.
“We prosecute vandalism and theft cases regardless of who the perpetrator or victim might be,” said a statement released by the City Attorney. “We don't decide, for example, based upon whether we like or dislike banks. That would be wrong under the law and such a practice by law enforcement would change our society in very damaging ways.”
Win or lose, San Diego is not alone in bringing graffiti cases against those who use chalk rather than a can of spray paint.
In an August 2012 report, Mother Jones magazine found that more than 50 people in 17 U.S. cities have been tagged by authorities for chalk drawings. The report cited cases in San Francisco, Denver, New York and Manchester, New Hampshire.
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