He’s facing up to 13 years in jail, up to $13,000 in fines, and an unforgiving judge.
His crime? Using water-soluble chalk on an outdoor sidewalk.
Jeff Olson, a former staffer for U.S. Senator Patty Murray, was charged in April with 13 counts of vandalism stemming from anti-bank slogans and drawings that he made on the sidewalk outside a San Diego Bank of America.
Olson told the San Diego Reader that, when the Occupy Wall Street protests swept across the country in the fall of 2011, he wanted to speak out in a different way.
"I thought my time would be better spent at the banks, trying to convince people to ditch these banks for local credit unions. I believed that was the best way to hold the executives and the corporations accountable for bringing this country to the brink of collapse," Olson told the Reader.
He began standing outside a Bank of America in North Park, San Diego, holding signs and, eventually, using chalk to scribble slogans like “stop big banks” and drawings, one showing octopus-like tentacles growing out of the bank, holding cash.
The chalk drawings were made between February and August 2012.
Mayor: “A stupid case”
Olson’s activism drew the attention of Darrell Freeman, a vice president of corporate security for Bank of America, who pressed the office of San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith to pursue criminal charges. Those charges came in April.
Bob Filner, the mayor of San Diego, said on Friday that the prosecution is “a stupid case.”
“It’s chalk,” Filner said, according to Los Angeles Times. “It’s water-soluble chalk. They were political slogans.”
But Goldsmith’s office says Olson’s behavior is “defacement” that caused “real and substantial monetary damages.”
“The [prosecution does] not fear that this reading of [the law] will make criminals of every child using chalk,” Goldsmith’s office said in court documents. “Chalk festivals may still be permitted. Kids acting without malice may still engage in their art. Circumventing the rules, without permission, under the color of night, and now waiving [sic] a banner of the First Amendment, does not negate the fact that defacement occurred, a private business suffered real and substantial monetary damages, and Defendant is responsible.”
Olson’s attorney, Tom Tosdal, is handling the case pro bono.
Judge issues gag order, forbids First Amendment defense
If the case wasn’t already disturbing enough, on Thursday Judge Howard Shore, who is handling the trial, issued a gag order forbidding Olson or anyone else involved in the case from talking to reporters.
Shore said he was troubled by the fact that media outlets had reported the maximum punishment of 13 years in jail and $13,000 in fines, even though the prosecution’s complaint clearly listed 13 charges, with the sentence range for each listed as “1 Yr/$1,000.”
Shore said the maximum sentence is “not going to happen and I would be surprised if it ever happened to any defendant with no criminal record.”
Earlier in the week, Shore granted a prosecution motion to forbid Olson’s attorney from using the First Amendment or free speech as a defense during the trial.