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San Diego's Circus Trial: Sidewalk Chalk Protest Reveals Gaping Government Failures

A protest against big banks made in children's chalk turned into a very serious matter.
 
 
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Perhaps you've heard about - and enjoyed - the acquittal of Jeff Olson after he was tried on 13 counts of vicious chalk attack on the Bank of America in San Diego.

A jury of his peers said essentially the same thing as Senator Elizabeth Warren's tweet last week: "You've got to be kidding me."

Well, no, actually, no one involved was really kidding.

Olson, 40, wasn't kidding when he went on a seven month rampage, from February to August, 2012, remorselessly using a water-soluble children's chalk to scar the sidewalks in front of a local Bank of America with such vicious messages as "No thanks, big banks" and "Shame on Bank of America."

Being water-soluble, the chalked messages didn't last. It's possible that the sentiment behind them remains semi-permanent among much of the population.

Seems the Bank of America Has Tender Feelings

The Bank of America wasn't kidding when it complained, but at first the San Diego City Attorney was reluctant to prosecute. The bank's Darell Freeman, VP of Global Corporate Security, reportedly hounded police and prosecutors to act.

The Bank of America wasn't kidding when it claimed it had to spend more than $6,000 cleaning chalk off public sidewalks, and security VP Freeman even got into a confrontation with Olson, as he chalked up two more branches.

The Bank of America wasn't kidding when it reminded City Attorney Jan Goldsmith that his election campaign had accepted banks' financial contributions. And it wasn't kidding when it reminded Goldsmith that he might be looking for more contributions when he decided to run for mayor in 2016.

Finally the Bank Snapped the City Attorney Into Line

City Attorney Goldsmith wasn't kidding when, perhaps regretting his politically unseemly delay, he went ahead and overcharged Olson with 13 misdemeanor counts of vandalism, putting Olson in jeopardy of a potential sentence of $13,000 in finesand 13 years in jail.

Olson wasn't kidding when he asserted that his chalk crusade was a constitutionally protected expression of his First Amendment right to free speech, or when he hired defense attorney Tom Tosdal.

City Attorney Goldsmith's lead prosecutor, Paige Hazard, wasn't kidding when, according to the San Diego reader, she offered Olson a plea deal:

On May 16, Hazard told Olson the City would drop the case if he agreed to serve 32 hours of community service, attend an 8-hour seminar by the "Corrective Behavior Institute," pay Bank of America $6,299 in restitution for the clean-up, waive all Fourth Amendment rights guarding against search and seizures, and surrender his driver's license for a three year period.

Olson wasn't kidding when he turned down the deal.

Well, If You Don't Like the First Offer, How About a Worse One?

Prosecutor Hazard wasn't kidding when she made a second offer, according to the Reporter:

So on June 18, as the June 25 trial date neared, Hazard offered Olson another deal. Olson would plead guilty to one count of vandalism, agree to serve three years' probation, pay restitution - amount undetermined - spend 24 hours cleaning up graffiti, and surrender his driver's license for 2 years.

Olson wasn't kidding when he turned down the deal, telling reporters: "I didn't see how that was fair…. It was their decision to take this to court, not mine."

San Diego mayor Bob Filner wasn't kidding when he wrote a June 20 memorandum that read, in part:

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. It is alleged that he has no previous criminal record. If these assertions are correct, I believe this is a misuse and waste of taxpayer money. 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."