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Calif. jury says if it's chalk, he walks; erases vandalism charges against sidewalk sloganeer

The mayor called the case "stupid" and a jury swiftly said it shouldn't stick, taking the eraser to vandalism charges for a man who wrote anti-bank slogans on San Diego sidewalks.

A Superior Court jury deliberated for five hours after a four-day trial before acquitting Jeff Olson Monday of the 13 misdemeanor charges that could have brought 13 years in jail and $13,000 in fines.

Olson, 40, was charged with scrawling messages like "Shame on B of A" and "No thanks, big banks" in water-soluble chalk on sidewalks outside San Diego Bank of America branches from April to August 2012. He included a drawing of an octopus reaching for dollar bills.

Olson turned to his attorney, nodded and smiled as the verdicts were read.

The trial was the latest in a series of dustups between City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, who prosecuted the case, and Mayor Bob Filner, who called it a "nonsense prosecution" that came in response to complaints from Bank of America.

"It's washable chalk, it's political slogans," Filner said last week. "I think it's a stupid case. It's costing us money."

Jail time is highly unusual for graffiti convictions, which typically result in fines or community service.

The city attorney's office said it offered to reduce the charges if Olson agreed to perform community service by cleaning up graffiti, but he refused. The office said the case was referred by the police department.

"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."

The judge, who imposed a gag order on participants during the trial, refused to allow Olson's attorney to argue that the messages were constitutionally protected free speech. Instead, the attorney argued the messages caused no damage and were not

Olson, who was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, said he was relieved by the outcome and that the prosecution brought more attention to his views than he ever imagined possible.

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

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