Free Speech

The Great Bumper Sticker Defacement Criminal Prosecution Fizzles

The smaller the teapot, the bigger the tempest.

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From State v. Ridgeway, decided Sept. 30 by an Ohio Court of Appeals panel (Judge Betty Sutton, joined by Judges Thomas Teodosio & Lynne Callahan):

The genesis of this case involves a political disagreement between Mr. Ridgeway, a local business owner, and the Mayor of the City of Green, Gerard Neugebauer. At one point in time, Mr. Ridgeway's wife, Susan Ridgeway, was a council member in the City of Green and considered herself, along with her husband, to be political allies of Mayor Neugebauer. Mrs. Ridgeway testified that when Mayor Neugebauer first ran for mayor, the Ridgeways "did all sorts of things" in support of Mayor Neugebauer. Mrs. Ridgeway stated, "I wrote letters to the editor for him. I gave him money. I made a video for him for advertisement. I knocked on doors for him."

After Mayor Neugebauer became mayor, the relationship between the Ridgeways and Mayor Neugebauer "eventually became strained" over a construction project that the Ridgeways opposed, and Mayor Neugebauer supported. When Mrs. Ridgeway sought another term on council, Mayor Neugebauer supported Mrs. Ridgeway's opponent, who ultimately defeated Mrs. Ridgeway in that election.

Following the fracture in their relationship, Mr. Ridgeway became an outspoken and vocal critic of Mayor Neugebauer. Mr. Ridgeway placed an advertisement in the South Side Leader that criticized Mayor Neugebauer. Mr. Ridgeway, the owner of a barbershop, displayed signs in his shop criticizing the mayor. Mayor Neugebauer testified that, "[Mr. Ridgeway] would say the most terrible things about me on Facebook…. [H]e constantly tried to make [customers who came to his barbershop] not support me."

This acrimonious relationship between Mayor Neugebauer and Mr. Ridgeway led to the events that formed the basis for the complaint in this case. Sometime in October of 2019, Mr. Ridgeway acquired a magnetic bumper sticker that read "Re-Elect Mayor Neugebauer." The State alleged that Mr. Ridgeway stole the bumper sticker; Mr. Ridgeway alleged it appeared on his vehicle one day when he was leaving his barbershop. Mr. Ridgeway testified that when the bumper sticker appeared on his car, he assumed it was a prank by one of his friends or an individual who supported Mayor Neugebauer.

Mr. Ridgeway testified he immediately removed the magnetic bumper sticker from his car and then, at a later time, modified the bumper sticker to include the words "do not" in front "Re-Elect Mayor Neugebauer." He also added the words "traitor," "liar," and "no way" to the bumper sticker before returning the magnet to his vehicle.

Mr. Ridgeway then took a picture of the bumper sticker on his vehicle and posted the picture to the social media website Facebook, with the caption "[v]ote this dishonest ass clown out." Mayor Neugebauer acquired a screenshot of Mr. Ridgeway's Facebook posting and shared it with Sergeant Mike Walsh of the Summit County Sheriff's office. Sergeant Walsh relayed the information to Detective Larry Brown, who then spoke with Mayor Neugebauer.

While Mayor Neugebauer testified he "didn't necessarily know [he] was the victim of a crime," Detective Brown testified that Mayor Neugebauer wanted to pursue criminal charges against Mr. Ridgeway. Detective Brown stated "without a victim I don't have a crime." Detective Brown sent Deputy Linda Urycki to Mr. Ridgeway's barbershop to investigate. Deputy Urycki discovered the bumper sticker on Mr. Ridgeway's car and issued a citation to Mr. Ridgeway for theft and criminal mischief….

Mr. Ridgeway testified that when he first saw the bumper sticker in support of Mayor Neugebauer on his vehicle, he "had to laugh a little bit because I thought someone [ ] had pranked me. And I was trying to think which of [ ] my hilarious friends, you know, would do that." Mr. Ridgeway testified that he also thought "perhaps, it was one of—of Mayor Neugebauer's minions that tried to help [the Mayor] to try to make me look silly or something." Both Mrs. Ridgeway and a friend of Mr. Ridgeway's, G.H., testified that Mr. Ridgeway told them about someone putting the bumper sticker on his vehicle around the time the incident occurred.

The jury acquitted Mr. Ridgeway on the theft count and returned a verdict against Mr. Ridgeway on the criminal mischief count. The trial court sentenced Mr. Ridgeway to 60 days in jail, suspended, and five years of non-reporting probation. As a condition of his probation, the trial court also ordered Mr. Ridgeway to complete two terms of wearing a SCRAM X monitoring bracelet, each of 60 days, to coincide with the next two municipal court elections in 2021 and 2023.

The court held:

 "The activity that constitutes criminal mischief under Revised Code Section 2909.07(A) involves a crime against property rather than a person." Proof of the offense requires the State to establish that the defendant damaged the property of another, i.e. someone else's property. The State is not required to prove ownership of the property, but at a minimum must establish that an individual other than the defendant had a right of possession sufficient to justify protecting that individual's interest against criminal damaging….

[T]he record in this case does not show that Mr. Ridgeway defaced the "property of another" as defined by the statute. Deputy Linda Urycki testified when she arrived at Mr. Ridgeway's barbershop, the bumper sticker was on Mr. Ridgeway's car. "As a general rule, proof of the possession of personal property is prima facie evidence of title or is said to raise a presumption of ownership, which may be rebutted or overcome by evidence of ownership in another."

The State argues in its brief that Mr. Ridgeway "fails to acknowledge the most important fact of the case: that the [bumper sticker] did not belong to [Mr.] Ridgeway." However, the bumper sticker was in Mr. Ridgeway's possession. It was the State that was required to overcome Mr. Ridgeway's presumption of ownership by establishing the bumper sticker was the property of someone other than Mr. Ridgeway.

Mayor Neugebauer's testimony, however, established that when he passed out the magnetic bumper stickers, he relinquished ownership of them and essentially abandoned them as his property. He had no expectation the bumper stickers would be returned to him, and he did not keep track of the number he passed out, or to whom he gave the bumper stickers.

The State presented testimony that A.C. had a bumper sticker go missing the same month the bumper sticker appeared on Mr. Ridgeway's car. However, according to their testimony, neither A.C. nor Mayor Neugebauer could recall the exact date A.C.'s bumper sticker went missing. The State failed to produce evidence to establish the bumper sticker in Mr. Ridgeway's possession belonged to A.C. or anyone else.

Construing all the evidence in the record in a light most favorable to the State, we cannot conclude the State established beyond a reasonable doubt that the bumper sticker on Mr. Ridgeway's car belonged to anyone other than Mr. Ridgeway. Therefore, the jury's verdict, finding Mr. Ridgeway guilty of criminal mischief, was based on insufficient evidence….