Vandalizing Political Signs is Damage to Private Property

 

September 21, 2022

Each Election Cycle is unique to itself. Candidates are taking a new approach to make things better if they are the incumbent or trying to convey their idea on how things should get done. On rare occasions, and typically in smaller communities or in races that don’t entice much rhetoric, the campaigns are peaceful, even friendly. More common nowadays is the vicious back and forth between candidates, or at the very least, tense interactions between supporters of each.

To show their support for one candidate or another, many property owners often put up political signs themselves or grant permission for others to express their opinion. Animosity between the political parties is at an all-time high, especially when referencing a Democrat or a Republican. More and more often in communities across the country and even in small town Montana, supporters of one candidate have stooped so low as to vandalize the opponent’s political signage.

Vandalism has occurred to candidates of all parties, Republican, Democrat, Independent and so on. Just between Havre and Malta there have been numerous reports of signs being stolen, painted on or defaced in some manner or more recently having sections of their political sign precisely cut out to hinder the signs message. After the latest incident the Blaine County Journal received a call from a concerned citizen regarding the possible penalties for destruction of political signage.

In researching the matter and after discussing the topic with Blaine County Attorney Kelsie Harwood we learned the ramifications of committing such an act of vandalism. First and foremost, political signs are private property and theft or vandalism to the property is a criminal offense. In Montana that would constitute a Criminal Mischief charge, it is considered a Class 3 misdemeanor for a person to steal, deface, vandalize, or unlawfully remove a political sign that is lawfully placed. It’s no different than an individual going onto private property and breaking a window or doing any kind of damage. The fact that it is a political sign is irrelevant. It is still causing damage to private property.

“We are aware of political signs being damaged, stolen or vandalized in election cycles, but no investigations have led to any charges ever being filed. To go onto private property and cause damage, or theft to the property would result in a criminal mischief charge. Under $1,500 would be a misdemeanor and over would be a felony,” said Harwood. “A trespassing charge could be added but it would depend on the circumstances.”

Further research found that placing political signs are protected by the First Amendment as a means of free speech with every citizen having the right to ‘freedom of expression’. Placing political signs in the United States isn’t new and can be traced back to the early 1800’s during John Quincy Adams bid for the Presidency in 1824. In recent years the same principal applies to property owners allowing or placing social messages on their property that support particular social movements.

There are plenty of regulations regarding where signs, political or otherwise, can be placed and those can be found easily online. The Montana Department of Transportation oversees the signage placed on private property along all Montana Roads. There are also specific times as to when political signs can be placed and when they must be taken down by. Political signs or those supporting social issues can only be placed on private property and not on Government property.

Prosecuting vandalism to signs of any sort is rare as many times their isn’t enough information available to investigators to warrant an arrest. When it comes to political signs at locations that have repeatedly been hit, property owners are starting to use surveillance to protect their signs and, in some cases, have identified the perpetrator.

 
 

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