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Sidewalk Chalk Writer's Vandalism Charges Erased

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

A California jury has acquitted a sidewalk chalk writer of his Crayola vandalism charges for writing slogans on sidewalks in front of banks.

A jury in San Diego deliberated for five hours before acquitting Jeff Olson, 40, of 13 misdemeanor charges that could have sent him to jail for 13 years and forced him to pay up to $13,000 in fines.

Though Olson was acquitted, the lesson to learn here is that even sidewalk chalk can potentially be considered vandalism.

Clever or Criminal?

Olson was charged with scrawling messages like "Shame on B of A" and "No thanks, big banks" in water-soluble chalk on sidewalks outside Bank of America branches from April to August 2012, reports The Associated Press. He included a drawing of an octopus reaching for dollar bills.

"I never thought in a million years that using washable sidewalk chalk on a city sidewalk could be considered vandalism," Olson told San Diego's KNSD-TV.

In California, graffiti is any inscription or defacement on property that is not your own. Typically, to be charged for graffiti, you must deface, damage and/or destroy property that isn't yours.

This, however, was an unusual graffiti case because the chalk was not permanent.

For that reason, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner chalked it up to a stupid case. "It's washable chalk, it's political slogans," Filner said last week. The case is "costing us money."

But City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and her office felt otherwise.

Getting Away With Graffiti?

"Graffiti remains vandalism in the state of California," the city attorney's office said. "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."

You heard them. It's (technically) vandalism. So put the chalk down and step away from the sketch...

Fortunately for lovers of political satire in chalk form, jail time is highly unusual for graffiti convictions, which typically result in fines or community service.

Olson was offered community service for lesser charges, but he didn't accept it, according to the city attorney's office.

Olson apparently took to the chalk after being inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement. He believes the prosecution gave his views more exposure than he ever imagined possible.

To Olson, the city attorney's office is basically a magical public relations dreamweaver.

"I couldn't have done better if I rented an airplane with a banner and put billboards up all over town," he said, according to the AP.

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