Photo circulating on social media allegedly of man wearing Ku Klux Klan hood at the Santee Vons grocery story.
Photo circulating on social media allegedly of man wearing Ku Klux Klan hood at the Santee Vons grocery story.

A Vons shopper photographed wearing a KKK-style hood May 2 won’t be charged for the action that drew wide condemnation, the Sheriff’s Department said Monday, citing free-speech protections.

Investigators interrogated the man who wore the hood, said a news release.

“The man expressed frustration with the coronavirus and having people tell him what he can and cannot do,” said the release. “He said that wearing the hood was not intended to be a racial statement.”

The unidentified man was quoted as saying: “It was a mask and it was stupid.”

Detectives, who also interviewed witnesses to the incident, conferred with both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.

“An analysis of all relevant criminal statutes was undertaken,” officials said. “As a result, it was determined there was insufficient evidence to charge the man who wore the Ku Klux Klan hood inside the store.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that “speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought that we hate,’” said the release.

Still, sheriff’s officials said the incident should “serve as a reminder for anyone contemplating wearing or displaying items so closely associated with hate and human suffering that our society
does not hold in high regard those who do so.”

“Santee is a city of families and the community is rightfully disgusted at this man’s despicable behavior,” the release added.

Less than a week after the episode, a similar incident took place at another grocery outlet in the same East County city.

Deputies responding to a reported disturbance at a Food 4 Less in the 9400 block of Cuyamaca Street in Santee on Thursday evening arrived to find a shopper wearing a mask decorated with a rectangular swastika sign.

“When deputies asked for the symbol to be removed, the man complied,” according to a sheriff’s statement. “Sheriff’s investigators will continue to look into the matter. The Sheriff’s Department does not condone hate or acts of intolerance. We are a county that is welcoming of people from all backgrounds.”

The man’s name was not released but he confirmed it was Dustin Hart in an interview with Times of San Diego.

The episode prompted expressions of shock and dismay online, including one from county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents Santee and other East County neighborhoods.

“Sad, vile acts like this must not be tolerated here or anywhere else,” she tweeted Friday afternoon. “It’s deeply offensive to the community and our entire region.”

Updated at 5:22 p.m. May 11, 2020

— City News Service contributed to this report.