SAN DIEGO - A 40-year-old man was acquitted Monday of 13 misdemeanor vandalism charges that stemmed from protest messages he wrote in chalk in front of three Bank of America branches in San Diego.
Jeffrey David Olson's attorney argued during the trial -- which garnered national attention -- that his client was engaging in a legal protest and was not maliciously defacing of property.
Defense attorney Tom Tosdal argued that vandalism law required jurors to find something was "maliciously defaced."
"His purpose was not malicious. His purpose was to inform," Tosdal said of his client.
Olson did not deny that he scrawled the anti-bank messages and artwork outside the banks between April and August of last year. The messages included "No thanks, big banks" and "Shame on Bank of America."
Olson said he started his message campaign because big "Wall Street banks nearly drove our economy into the ditch."
"I realized that, there was basically a criminal racket operating on my block, and I didn't find that acceptable," Olson said after Monday's verdict.
Olson said he was relieved by the jury's decision. He said he had a hard time dealing with the fact that he was charged with vandalism.
"It's shocking, it's really shocking," Olson told reporters. "I never thought in a million years that using washable sidewalk chalk on a city sidewalk could be considered vandalism. That was unfathomable to me."
The prosecution of Olson brought condemnation of the City Attorney's Office from Mayor Bob Filner, who called it a waste of time.
Tosdal said it was an "enormous waste of public resources." He said bank officials demanded the prosecution because they didn't like his client's message.
However, Deputy City Attorney Paige Hazard told jurors that there are ways to get one's message out, and the defendant intentionally chose to break the rules.
If he'd used the chalk just a couple of times, he wouldn't have ever been caught, but "he went back again and again and again," she said.
Hazard said Olson had to make "a real nuisance of himself" to attract the attention of law enforcement.
The San Diego City Attorney's Office issued a statement saying it respected the jury's verdict and noting that it "receives about 20,000 criminal cases annually, referred to us by the San Diego Police Department."
"This case was referred to our office by SDPD and was issued by prosecutors in the Neighborhood Prosecution Unit. That unit is charged with, among other things, working closely with SDPD's Graffiti Strike Force. Our prosecutors never treated this case as anything more than a graffiti case," the statement reads. "As with most graffiti cases, Mr. Olson was offered reduction to an infraction after completing volunteer work service cleaning up graffiti. His refusal of that offer resulted in the trial and his successful defense."
The statement goes on to note that graffiti" remains vandalism in the state of California. Penal Code section 594 (a) prohibits maliciously defacing, damaging or destroying the property of another. 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 urged people to close their accounts with Wall Street banks and move their money to a local nonprofit community credit union.
"If you're mad about this, if you think this wasn't fair what happened to me, close your Wall Street bank account," Olson said.
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