SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – A protester is standing trial on criminal vandalism charges in San Diego, and faces a sentence of up to 13 years in prison if convicted, for a scribbling a series of anti-bank slogans in chalk on a city sidewalk.
Mayor Bob Filner has denounced the prosecution of Jeff Olson, 40, a man with no previous criminal record, as a waste of taxpayer money and an abuse of power that infringes on First Amendment free speech protections in the U.S. Constitution.
“This young man is being persecuted for thirteen counts of vandalism stemming from an expression of political protest that involved washable children’s chalk on a city sidewalk,” the mayor said last week in a memo to the City Council.
The city attorney, Jan Goldsmith, defended his pursuit of the case in remarks published on Thursday in the U-T San Diego news website, saying: “We prosecute vandalism and theft cases regardless of who the perpetrator or victim might be.”
“We don’t decide, for example, based upon whether we like or dislike banks,” Goldsmith added. “That would be wrong under the law and such a practice by law enforcement would change our society in very damaging ways.”
On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Howard Shore issued a gag order in the case, forbidding all parties from discussing the trial further. He previously ruled that Olson would not be permitted to invoke freedom of expression as a defense in the case.
Olson is charged with 13 misdemeanor counts of vandalism, each carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, though he is not expected to receive as harsh a sentence as 13 consecutive years behind bars if found guilty.
He is accused of writing a series of protest slogans between February and August 2012 on sidewalks in front of Bank of America branches.
Olson has admitted to the graffiti protests, but said nothing he wrote was profane or vulgar and suggested his prosecution was politically motivated.
“I wrote, ‘No thanks big banks.’ I wrote, ‘Shame on Bank of America,'” he told San Diego CBS television affiliate KFMB-TV. He told another local station, ABC affiliate KGTV: “If I had drawn a little girl’s hopscotch squares on the street, we wouldn’t be here today.”
The mayor’s office would not rule out the possibility that Filner might appear as a witness for Olson.
The Olson case has become the latest flashpoint in a deepening rift between Filner and Goldsmith, who was elected city attorney under the former mayor by promising to improve the office’s ability to work with the city’s top elected official.
The mayor and city attorney have clashed over medical marijuana dispensary crackdowns, tourism district funds, bond issues and the mayor’s recent successful effort to cut $500,000 from the city attorney’s budget.