Monday just started off bad for City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and kept going.

His crackdown on a sidewalk chalk protester made it to NPR (check out the number of shares on that Facebook post). It caused a new wave of national embarrassment. Soon, even the district attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, got on social media to distance herself from the case.

A Twitter user had panned her “Shame on San Diego’s @BonnieDumanis, prosecutes #Jeffrey Olson for vandalism, sidewalk chalk, washable, no profanity … ”

Dumanis wanted everyone to know it wasn’t her. “FYI, this is the CITY Attorney case. Not ours. …”

This was a public relations nightmare Dumanis wanted no part of.

As Monday progressed, the jury informed Goldsmith’s team it had lost the case — a solid, embarrassing fail to punctuate the long folly.

As the case went on its parade through the nation’s media, it took on a life of its own, slightly removed from reality. No, Jeff Olson probably was not going to end up in jail for doing something that labor and anti-abortion activists do pretty regularly with the apparent permission of police. But still, it went national because it struck a cord: The city attorney may not think this is a matter of free speech, but a lot of people did.

That we would spend time prosecuting a guy, going to trial, and losing, because he chalked up a sidewalk and parking lot at Bank of America came off as just plain foolish.

Monday also brought us clarity, from the reporter who tracked this case masterfully, Dorian Hargrove, on what Goldsmith’s prosecutors had offered Olson were he to plead out and resolve the case. The offers were odious.

This was a waste of resources — apparently incalculable — right when the city attorney was trying to argue that a cut to these neighborhood prosecutors was an intolerable and petty political attack led by the mayor.

The city attorney appeared to recognize the folly. But, as he often does, he danced an awkward line between wanting to blame someone else, this time his staff, and wanting to defend his actions.

In a statement, he said it was the cops and his staff who pursued the case. Vandalism is vandalism, wrote his spokesman Michael Giorgino in a statement. It doesn’t matter if you can remove it easily.

“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,” he wrote.

But then, in classic city attorney double speak, Giorgino added: “We are, however, sympathetic to the strong public reaction to this case and the jury’s message.”

I followed up with him and asked what he meant. It seems groups might want to know whether they would fall on his “sympathetic” side or on his “vandalism is vandalism” side were they to use chalk to make a point.

Giorgino wrote back:

I doubt you will see us issue washable chalk cases. [The Neighborhood Prosecution Unit] is reassessing its issuing guidelines in light of this case.  Even so, police officers can still ticket low-level graffiti as infractions without our office’s involvement. We only handle misdemeanors.

So there you go, folks. Whether you’re a labor organizer, anti-abortion activist, lone-wolf anti-bank voice or even just a kid, the city attorney’s office doubts you’ll face his wrath in the future, if you chalk up a sidewalk in anything close to anger.

As he sets new guidelines for his beleaguered neighborhood prosecutors, the city attorney might want to incorporate a simple rule: Don’t prosecute people for stupid things.

As managers, we all have to remind employees sometimes that they need to recognize when they’ve gotten too wrapped up in something and it’s no longer worth the time they’re spending on it.

And preferably do this before it makes national news.

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Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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