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Professor’s Lawyer Claims Lawn Signs Were Taken from Public Right of Way

lawnsignsThe lawyer for a Princeton University professor who has been charged with theft for removing the lawn signs that belong to a local computer repair business argued in municipal court this afternoon that the signs his client removed were placed on public property, and therefore no crime was committed.

Kim Otis, the defense lawyer for Princeton University Professor John Mulvey, requested a probable cause hearing. He said the hearing is necessary to determine whether the law was actually violated.

But Princeton Municipal Court Judge John McCarthy rejected the request.

“That ship has already sailed,” McCarthy said, adding that there is no provision for probably cause hearings at the municipal level in New Jersey.

Mulvey, a professor of operations research and financial engineering, was caught on video in July removing lawn signs that belonged to the business Princeton Computer Tutor, which is owned by Ted Horodynksy. The signs started disappearing from the area of Rosedale and Elm roads in June of 2013. More than 20 signs were taken from various locations. When police tracked down Mulvey via a license plate caught on one of the videos, he had the signs, valued at $471 total, in his garage. Horodynsky said the signs started to disappear shortly after Mulvey called and left him a voice mail accusing him of cutting him off in traffic and threatening to take down his signs.

Otis said he only had the chance to review evidence in the case last week. He said after talking to zoning officer Derek Bridger,  he concluded that his client removed signs from the public right of way, and therefore no law was broken. He also claimed that because the signs were illegally placed in the right of way, Mulvey had the right under the town’s sign ordinance to remove them.

McCarthy didn’t buy the argument, and read excerpts from the ordinance out loud.

“Where does it say any interested party can go out and remove signs? Where does it say that?” McCarthy asked.

Otis read a clause from the ordinance that talked about the authority of the zoning officer to remove signs. The judge said he did not see any language in the ordinance that gives individuals the right to remove signs.

“Well how is it illegal to remove unlawful signs?” Otis asked.

“You don’t have to go there,” the judge said of the request for the probable cause hearing, adding that the evidence could be reviewed during the trial.

Municipal Prosecutor Reed Gusciora said there is a dispute of fact in the case.  He told the judge he has asked Horodynksy to provide him with a list of all the addresses where the signs were located.

Horodynsky said he had permission from homeowners to place his signs on their properties. The signs were normally placed on front lawns, along with other signs. Only his signs were removed. He did not say whether the signs being removed on video were in the public right of way. He said those signs were placed near the road, unlike his other signs, in an attempt to catch the person who kept removing them. “It was a sting operation,” he said after the court hearing.

Mulvey, 67, did not attend the hearing this afternoon. The judge scheduled a pre-trial conference for Sept. 22.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Why not call and report the signs as being abandoned?

  • Good point. I’m concerned with this judges reasoning. Technically I don’t have the explicit right to drive. So I could be fined for failure to “not drive”?

  • Spiritof1776

    If they were left in the public right of way, without any indication that it was a temporary measure, that’s abandoning them.

  • Pygmalion

    Who said the signs were “abandoned”?

  • Pygmalion45

    I think Mulvey has an anger management issue.

  • Spiritof1776

    You can’t steal something that’s been abandoned. That’s the law. The Supreme Court had upheld this.

  • Cooper11

    Maybe not, but if it’s an ugly as hell eyesore, people wouldn’t miss it when it’s gone.

  • JeffC

    Of course it does, stealing is stealing.

  • JeffC

    That’s a zoning violation, most likely, not a crime (like theft).

  • Spiritof1776

    It doesn’t appear as if anyone was coming back to get the flyers, so your analogy doesn’t work.

    But if you do abandon your car in a public space — and this does happen — you are held responsible for the costs involved in removing it.

    Will the original sign poster be charged by the Princeton police for violating the law?

  • Spiritof1776

    Who said anything about the First Amendment?

    Does theft cover items abandoned or illegally placed in the public right of way? It wouldn’t appear to. If it’s on someone’s property, then that’s a different issue.

  • JeffC

    Theft is not protected by the First Amendment.

  • JeffC

    So … if I illegally park my car along the road (public right-of-way) the professor can steal it without repercussions, right?

  • Spiritof1776

    Judge McCarthy put forward an interesting legal theory. Apparently, people are only allowed to do things that are explicitly stated in the law as being allowed.

    The merits of this case are unclear, but Judge McCarthy’s view of the law should give anyone concerned about freedom and civil liberties chills.

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