Four people could face up to a year in jail for chalking up city sidewalks while protesting police misconduct.
Kelly Wayne Patterson, 44, Brian Ballentine, 31, Hailee Jewell, 18, and Catalino de la Cruz Dazo Jr., 20, face multiple gross misdemeanor counts of placing graffiti or defacing property and conspiracy to commit placing graffiti.
If convicted, they could face probation, a suspended driver’s license, community service and up to a year in the Clark County Detention Center.
The four protesters, affiliated with Nevada Cop Block and Sunset Activist Collective, used washable colored chalk in July to write critical statements of police on the sidewalks outside the Metropolitan Police Department’s headquarters and in front of the Regional Justice Center.
Demonstrating against police brutality and officer-involved shootings in Las Vegas, the protesters say they were practicing free speech and should not face charges.
District Attorney Steve Wolfson is taking the case seriously.
“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.”
One statement 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.”
Another was: “(Expletive) the police.”
Officers on July 13 watched the protesters write statements on the sidewalk and told them they were violating anti-graffiti laws, according to police reports and court documents.
After the protest, Patterson and Ballentine were cited, and police called the city graffiti abatement team, which used high-powered washers to clean the dusty words.
Days later, before a scheduled court hearing on the citation the protesters again used colored chalk, typically made from a composite of calcium sulfate, as part of their protest outside the Regional Justice Center.
One statement read: “(Expletive) Pigs.”
An unknown woman dumped coffee on it, washing it away, according to police who witnessed the protest.
According to documents, Patterson then wrote on the coffee-stained ground, “(Expletive) the police.”
Police documented the evidence, called the city’s graffiti abatement team and began exhaustive research about the perils of power washing to sidewalks, including that it “artificially erodes and abrades the concrete’s surface thereby adding to the unnecessary wear and tear.”
Detailed police reports said the city crew cost $1,550 to clean both crime scenes.
The reports did not include the cost of the coffee used to clean one of the statements. It’s unclear whether it was a small, medium or large coffee.
Lawyer Robert Langford called the case preposterous and is representing the defendants pro bono.
“Under that standard, any kid that does hopscotch patterns on the sidewalk can be guilty of the same crime,” Langford said.
The veteran defense lawyer added, “Justice in this case is that the case should be dismissed. 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.”
Langford accused law enforcement officials of inflating the cost of the cleanup to justify the arrest and incarceration until bail was posted, instead of simply issuing a citation.
Part of his defense will be to show that the chalk could have been cleaned up at a lessor cost.
“My bet is a good stiff broom would have done the same thing,” he said.
By employing the power washing crew at a cost of more than $250, the graffiti charge was elevated from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, which could mean a stiffer sentence if they are convicted.
Langford said the amount of time, money and other taxpayer resources spent on the case is ridiculous. And all “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.”
Langford added he’s considering filing a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the defendants.
“Public property is being defaced with profanity,” Wolfson said. “That’s what it comes down to.”
A preliminary hearing is set for December.
Contact reporter Francis McCabe at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-1039.