Until his acquittal Tuesday afternoon, Jeff Olson of San Diego was facing 13 years in prison and up to $13,000 in fines for a handful of misdemeanor charges. His crime? Writing on the sidewalk in chalk. After a four-day trial, Olson was found not guilty of the vandalism charges on Tuesday.
According to USA Today, Olson, 40, spent months writing messages like “Shame on B of A” in chalk outside of Bank of America branches in the San Diego area. While Olson’s anti-big bank messages were created using washable chalk, San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith decided to prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law after his arrest. If convicted, Olson could have landed in prison for 13 years on 13 misdemeanor counts of vandalism.
The case quickly drew criticism online, leading Mayor Bob Filner to call the case a “nonsense prosecution” done at the behest of Bank of America. Fortunately for Olson, his jury agreed with Filner and found Olson not guilty of all charges after a five-hour deliberation.
Despite Olson’s acquittal, Goldsmith still believes that his chalk drawings are no laughing matter, though she denies having any political motivation in her prosecution.
“Graffiti remains vandalism in the state of California,” Michael Giorgino, a spokesman for Goldsmith, told UT San Diego. “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 maintains that he was simply engaging in a peaceful protest against the big banks that he believes helped tank the American economy.
“I would write what I was thinking that day,” Olson told UT San Diego. “Matthew 21:12, the Bible verse where Jesus kicks the bankers out of the temple. Sometimes I would write, ‘No thanks, big banks,’ sometimes ‘Shame on B of A.’ Then I started to get more creative. Sometimes it was hideous octopus tentacles grabbing at dollar bills.
“I’m not much of an artist, but sometimes it’s fun to play with chalk just like kids do.”