Free Speech

The Great Bumper Sticker Defacement Criminal Prosecution Fizzles

The smaller the teapot, the bigger the tempest.

|

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….

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: October 25, 1795

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. There is an important distinction to be made in this sort of case between legal title and defendant's mental state. If I stole the mayor's magnet and put it on the defendant's car, the mayor might have legal title while at the same time the defendant reasonably believed it was either a gift or abandoned. For a crime like vandalism mental state ought to be an element.

    1. Bingo.

      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."

      The fact that they could try to make that argument, without also providing evidence that he in fact took it from someone else, is mind boggling.

      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.

      That's nice. You still have to prove that Ridgeway took it from A.C.'s car, rather than John stealing it and putting it on Ridgeway's car.

      This sounds like a case where everyone on the prosecution side needs to be sanctioned, including the idiot judge that allowed the jury to find guilty on the "criminal mischief count" after finding not guilty on the theft count.

      1. including the idiot judge that allowed the jury to find guilty on the “criminal mischief count” after finding not guilty on the theft count.

        As was already explained in this thread, inconsistent verdicts is not a defense in most states. The judge could've issued a judgment of acquittal (whatever Ohio calls it, directed verdict or whatever) on Count 2 on the grounds of insufficient evidence, but could not have issued one on the grounds that the jury had found not guilty on Count 1.

    2. Although I agree this prodecution was rediculous, the State’s theory appeared to be that the bumper sticker remained the Mayor’s property at all times and Mr. Ridgeway knew it. It appears they argued that in general campaign paraphenalia remain the property of the campaign at all times.

      A rediculous theory. But one that doesn’t require proof that Mr. Ridgeway stole the bumper sticker from anyone. Under the State’s theory, the Mayor’s campaign merely conditionally loaned the bumper sticker to Mr. Ridgeway, they didn’t give it to him to do what he wanted with it.

  2. Personally, I thought Mr. Ridgeway (or someone else) was pretty damned funny with the magnetic stickers. Wonder if I could do that here in the People's Republic of NJ.

  3. Something in the air and water of Ohio induces insanity.

  4. The evidence that the sticjker was stolen certainly seems insufficient, but I'm unclear about why an appeals court is sitting in judgement on a question of fact, not law. Can someone elucidate the limits on this?

    1. Legal sufficiency means determining whether the facts presented COULD be a violation of the law, assuming everything is believed. Here, it wouldn't matter if the jury believed all of the evidence presented, because there was NO evidence that the bumper sticker belonged to someone other than Ridgeway. If there had been one person testifying "that was my sticker" and another saying it wasn't, then the jury can believe who it believes. But here, there just wasn't any evidence that could amount to proof beyond a reasonable doubt of that element.

      1. But didn't Ridgeway say, multiple times, "This is for sure NOT my own property!"? How does that not support a jury/judicial finding that, in fact, it is not Ridgeway's property? (I'm not at all convinced that there was a crime here. But I am not at all understanding how a defendant's admission can't be--in of itself--sufficient basis for proving an element.)

        1. But I am not at all understanding how a defendant’s admission can’t be–in of itself–sufficient basis for proving an element.

          It can be. But that can't be. That it wasn't his property doesn’t establish that it was someone else's, which is what's necessary.

          1. Ah, got it. Agree...that distinction is/was important, and I see how that element could not be met, with the facts of this particular case.

        2. But didn’t Ridgeway say, multiple times, “This is for sure NOT my own property!”?

          No, Ridgeway said that he didn't buy it, and he didn't steal it. He testified that he thought someone else had obtained it legally and then placed it on his car.

          That would make it a "gift" to him, and his property, to do with as he wished.

          When the jury found him not guilty of stealing the sticker, they established the "fact" that he had not obtained it illegally.

          Why, IIUC, takes away and reasonable inference that he believed it was someone else's property when he defaced it

    2. Whether there is sufficient evidence for a rational trier of fact to find every element of the offense to have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt is a question of law.

  5. If anything, the mayor, police, and attorney need to be arrested and charged with political prosecutions. Then, the judge and jury need a good slap upside the head.

    How on Earth could they look at a widely-distributed bumper sticker, conclude that it is stolen, and then charge him for it?

    How could the jury return innocent of theft yet guilty of mischief?

    1. If I steal the sticker and put it on a car and somebody else scribbles on it, the somebody else did not steal the sticker but did commit mischief upon it.

      In my state the theft charge would be receiving stolen property, and it would not be a defense that somebody else stole it. Being in possession of recently stolen property is evidence of a crime.

      1. Your hypothetical is true but irrelevant. Possession of stolen property still requires proof that the property was in fact stolen and not, for example, donated (in this case, as a prank), abandoned or lost by the actual owner.

      2. "If I steal the sticker and put it on a car and somebody else scribbles on it, the somebody else did not steal the sticker but did commit mischief upon it."

        Not if it's their own car.

        1. It's a magnetic sticker, not permanently attached.

          1. So what? "Possession is 9/10s of the law." It was on his car. For the sake of this hypothetical, he didn't put it there, and doesn't know who did.

            If he were to throw it away, you couldn't charge him with a crime, correct? (Otherwise I'm going to find every NeverTrumper here and stick pro-Trump bumper stickers on their cars, and then have them prosecuted for theft when they remove the sticker)

            If it's not a crime for him to destroy it, it's not a crime for him to deface it

          2. This is pretty simple.
            If he bought it. Then it's his to do with what he likes
            If someone put it on his car, then it's a gift. It's his to do with what he likes.
            If the sticker was sitting on a table next to pens and signs, saying "take one", then it's also a gift. It's his to do with what he likes
            If he finds it on the side of a road, it's abandoned. It's his to do with what he likes.

            The only way it could be stolen is if he breaks into an office to steal it or grabs it when someone told him he couldn't have one. The only way either of those makes ANY sense is if they were limited edition things, exactly the opposite of any political bumper sticker.

            1. Now what if the nearly worthless magnetic bumper sticker is instead a magnetic GPS tracker with nontrivial value? No longer a hypothetical. _Heuring v. State of Indiana_ (Indiana 2020): "To find a fair probability of unauthorized control here, we would need to conclude that Hoosiers don’t have the authority to remove unknown, unmarked objects from their personal vehicles. Reaching such a conclusion—on these facts— would be illogical." But the court did not decide that the defendant could keep the GPS tracker which he lawfully removed. It was only necessary to decide that the tracker's having been removed from the car and having become inoperable were not sufficient evidence of theft. Perhaps he would have had to return the tracker, if police had not already seized it pursuant to an illegal warrant.

  6. Seems like the defendant could have raised inconsistent verdicts as an issue, but perhaps that issue was forfeited for not being raised below.

    1. In my state a defendant can not appeal on the grounds that a not guilty verdict on one charge implies the defendant is not guilty of another charge with different elements. The jury is allowed to commit random acts of kindness.

    2. Most American jurisdictions don't recognize inconsistent verdicts as grounds for relief for criminal defendants. From my brief research, Ohio appears to be one of them.

  7. The process is the punishment here.

    How many thousands did this cost to defend?

  8. The less the consequence, the larger the outcry.

    As a college faculty member. Prof. Volokh must sure know this quote, "The reason academic politics are so vicious is that the stakes are so small"

    1. Well, Mr. Ridgeway may have thought having a conviction, being on probation and wearing an ankle monitor to be a big deal.

  9. The sentence seems all out of proportion to the "crime". The cost of those magnetic signs seems to be less that $20.00.

    60 days in jail (even suspended), 5 years probation and 2 60 day stints wearing an ankle bracelet, which usually carries with it a bunch of fees for not stealing a $20 piece of plastic and defacing it?

    1. I couldn't agree more. Something stinks to high heaven in this case, I think multiple lawyers need to lose their licenses over it, and possibly some people aside from the defendant need to go behind bars.

  10. Jew's game. Land of the free home of the brave until the jew thin blue line flexes the muscle of the masters, arresting citizens for non obedience. That is why jews came up with qualified immunity, otherwise the cops would be in jail. Such a jew game.

Please to post comments