A Year Behind Bars For A Sidewalk Chalk Protest?

That's the possible fate of four Las Vegas residents who chalked messages protesting police brutality at the local headquarters.
By @katierucke |
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    Four members of the Sunset Activist Collective in Nevada used side walk chalk to display messages against police misconduct and are facing jail time. (Photo/John Morgan via Flickr)

    Four members of the Sunset Activist Collective in Nevada used side walk chalk to display messages against police misconduct and are facing jail time. (Photo/John Morgan via Flickr)

    Four protesters who wrote anti-police messages using chalk on the sidewalks outside the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s headquarters and the Regional Justice Center twice in July as part of protests against police brutality, have been charged with two counts of “defacing property.”

    Two of the protesters were also charged with two counts each of “conspiracy to commit a non-felony crime.”

    If convicted, Kelly Wayne Patterson, 44, Brian Ballentine, 31, Hailee Jewell, 18 and Catalino de la Cruz Dazo Jr., 20, could spend as much as one year behind bars in the Clark County Detention Center. Once they are released from jail, the four would likely be put on probation, have their driver’s license suspended, and have to perform community service.

    While the protesters — who are part of the Sunset Activist Collective, which is affiliated with the group Nevada Cop Block — say they were merely exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and shouldn’t face charges, and the warrant for their arrest labeled the four as “ideological taggers.” According to a report from the Las Vegas Action News, ideological taggers are those who express their hostility or grievances, often very explicitly, in their graffiti.

    One of the chalk statements read: “Not one single cop in Metro’s entire history has been charged after shooting someone. Even if that person was unarmed and/or innocent.” Others included: “F*** the police,” “F*** Pigs ” and “Murderers still work here.”

    According to a news report from the Las Vegas Sun, there have been at least nine officer-involved shootings this year in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s jurisdiction alone. Two of those shootings were fatal.

    Steve Wolfson is the Clark County district attorney handling the case. He said he is taking the case and the messages seriously, even if they were written in chalk. “This is not a kid drawing with a piece of chalk on the sidewalk. These are adults who used chalk to draw profanity,” he said. “And there is a law on the books that make it a crime to engage in this activity.

    “These folks were initially warned that it was against the law. Then they were given misdemeanor citations and then they came back and did it again.”

    Robert Langford is the lawyer representing all four defendants pro bono. He called the charges “preposterous,” and said that while there is no question his clients wrote the messages, the police have overreacted to the protest messages.

    “Justice in this case is that the case should be dismissed,” Langford said. “They were engaged in constitutionally protected First Amendment activity. Period. They have the right to engage in that type of protest. This was something that was harmless.”

    He said under law enforcement’s current logic, “any kid that does hopscotch patterns on the sidewalk can be guilty of the same crime,” and added that law enforcement officials have inflated the cost of the cleanup to justify the arrest and incarceration of the four protesters, instead of just issuing them a citation.

    According to the police report, the officers saw the protesters writing their colorful messages on the sidewalk and told the four individuals they were violating anti-graffiti laws. The protesters continued writing, even after one woman dumped her coffee on one of the messages, which washed it away.

    The police officers watching the protesters called the Las Vegas graffiti abatement team, who then investigated whether the sidewalk’s concrete surface would be able to handle the “unnecessary wear and tear” of power washing the chalk messages away.

    In order to thoroughly clean the “crime scenes,” the police decided they did need the use of the power washer, which cost the city more than $1,500. As a result of the expensive cleanup charge, the police increased the charges against the protesters from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor.

    Langford said the amount of time, money and other taxpayer resources used on the case is ridiculous “because the bullies at the Las Vegas police department wanted to hurt people who wanted to criticize them. That’s, in the final analysis, what this case is about.” He also shared that part of his defense argument will be to demonstrate that the chalk messages could have easily been cleaned up using a less expensive method. “My bet is a good stiff broom would have done the same thing,” he said.

    But Wolfson maintains that the issue is that, “Public property is being defaced with profanity.”

    Police Officer Larry Hadfield is a spokesman for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. He said the department fully investigated the case and gave the results to the district attorney, who decided to prosecute the protesters. Hadfield wouldn’t discuss any specifics of the case, but said, “We are not interested in this being tried in the media.”

    A preliminary hearing has been set for December. Langford said he is considering whether he will file a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the defendants.

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