Mike Pierce thought nothing of pulling the yellow estate sale sign from the ground, placing it in the trunk of his car and driving off with it one afternoon.
The Kingsville resident and community activist says he picks up thousands of signs a year when they don't meet county code. This time, someone was watching — and now Pierce faces a misdemeanor criminal charge of theft under $100 in connection with the incident a few months ago on Providence Road in Towson.
The case highlights a common complaint in Baltimore County: signs often found on the sides of roads and on utility poles that many residents consider an unsightly nuisance.
County law prohibits people from posting signs in roadway rights-of-way, or in ways that could obstruct traffic or pose a hazard to motorists. Non-government signs are barred from numerous public places, including on county buildings and in parks.
Pierce, 70, has hired a high-profile Baltimore defense attorney to fight the case, saying county law allows citizens to remove illegal signs. The theft charge carries up to 90 days in jail and up to a $500 fine.
"It's unusual, but the code seems to sort of deputize citizens to be allowed to remove signs on public rights of way," said Pierce's lawyer, Andrew Alperstein. "He's passionate about his community and how it looks and appears."
County code states that it is legal "for a person who is not an employee of the county to remove a sign" that violates the rules — though it doesn't elaborate on whether the person is allowed to keep the sign.
Pierce calls the signs "litter on a stick" and says they are an eyesore and a safety hazard. But the man who placed the sign on the roadside says Pierce should have given him back his property when he confronted him that day.
"Marketing is a big portion of what we do," said Darren Hahnfeld, owner of iStuff sellers, an estate sale company that does business in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and D.C. "One well-placed sign can mean a world of difference."
Hahnfeld said that among those in the estate sale industry, vanishing signs are a common gripe.
"This guy is not the only one who does it," he said of Pierce.
He said he has called the police on others who have taken his signs, but "this is actually the first time anything's come of it." He said he was shocked when he received a summons to Towson District Court, where Pierce is set to appear April 25.
"He could've righted everything by just giving it back," Hahnfeld said.
Pierce, who is active in community groups such as North County Preservation, said he's cared about signs for decades. In addition to his concerns about aesthetics and traffic safety, he also believes that many are scams.
He doesn't usually take estate sale signs, but picked it up when he passed it on his way to remove a "We Buy Houses" sign.
About two years ago, he began keeping count on his calendar each evening. He's removed roughly10,000 since then, he said.
Hahnfeld said he believed his signs were legal if they were only up temporarily. On the day he witnessed Pierce taking a sign, he was driving around in his SUV to remove his own signs.
According to a statement of charges against Pierce, Hahnfeld wrote down Pierce's license plate number, which officers traced to Pierce's home.
"Are you here about the signs?" Pierce asked when an officer showed up at this door, according to the charging documents.
When the officer asked him to hand over the signs, he refused, Pierce said.
Officer Jennifer Peach, a county police spokeswoman, said she understood Pierce's point of view, but the property belonged to someone else and he should have returned it when asked.
"He probably would never have been charged with this theft if ... he hadn't refused to cooperate with us," she said.
Pierce's representative on the County Council is taking his side.
"These signs are a blight on our communities," said Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican.
Marks said his office gets complaints "all the time" about signs.
"It's one thing to put a sign up on private property," Marks said. "No one should trespass on private property. It is another thing for a citizen to remove what is essentially litter" from public highways.
Five years ago, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz donned an orange safety vest to walk with code enforcement agents to publicize a crackdown on illegal signs, which officials referred to as "sign pollution."
County code enforcement chief Lionel van Dommelen declined to comment on Pierce's case, but said the county takes illegal signs seriously.
"We remove thousands of signs a year from the rights of ways throughout Baltimore County," van Dommelen said.
Pierce said he knows others in the county who are also passionate about hunting for illegal signs.
"I know there's other people doing it, so I think they're very concerned about the outcome of this," Pierce said.