Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Is pulling down an opponent's campaign signs a crime?

The answer to this question (and all lawyers out there are invited to say it along with me) is: It depends. Let me explain.

The possible pilfering of campaign signs is in the news today because of an article by Jeremy Gorner in today's Chicago Tribune, about the arrest of Carl Boyd on the night before the March 20 primary.

Boyd was the winner of the Democratic Primary for Circuit Court Judge in Cook County's 2nd Judicial Subcircuit. He faces no opposition on the ballot in November.

Quoting from the linked Tribune article:
According to a police report, a Chicago police sergeant spotted Boyd removing [Chester] Slaughter campaign signs and placing them in the trunk of his 2000 BMW near 119th and Halsted streets early on March 19. [Slaughter was one of Boyd's three primary opponents.]

Police reported recovering 12 of Slaughter's campaign signs from Boyd's car.

Boyd was arrested on a misdemeanor theft charge, booked at the Calumet District police lockup and released later in the morning after posting $200 in cash for bail.
What's missing from this account is an essential element that might make Mr. Boyd's alleged conduct into a crime.

I have no opinion as to whether Mr. Boyd did or did not do something in violation of the law.

However, in 1984, in Members of the City Council of the City of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466 U.S. 789, 104 S.Ct. 2118, 80 L.Ed.2d 772, the United States Supreme Court upheld a city ordinance that prohibited the erection of campaign signs on public property. Most cities and villages in Cook County also have some sign ordinance prohibiting campaign signs on public property; some even have provisions that purportedly allow municipalities to bill campaigns whose signs are removed from streetlights or public parkways by public employees. In this sense, signs on lampposts or posted at intersections may be considered abandoned and might be removed by anyone.

On the other hand, uprooting and removing a campaign sign planted by a homeowner in his or her own front lawn might very well constitute misdemeanor theft.

In other words, if Candidate A is pulled over by the police and is found to have a whole bunch of Candidate B's signs in the back seat, it may look a tad unseemly -- but where those signs came from is the key factor in determining whether Candidate A has committed a crime.

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