The 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.