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Political signs stolen from some Carroll County yards in tense 2020 election season

Campaign signs are posted in front yards along West Green Street in Westminster Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.
Campaign signs are posted in front yards along West Green Street in Westminster Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

With a bit of wire and cardboard, someone can broadcast their political opinion from their home, but what happens if a passerby doesn’t like what their neighbor’s sign says?

Stealing or damaging political yard signs is not uncommon leading up to an election, Carroll County police say. Those who do could face charges such as trespassing, theft of property, vandalism or destruction of property, Maryland State Police spokesperson Greg Shipley said. Chief Doug Reitz of Mount Airy said a conviction for unlawful removal of signs carries up to a $500 fine and 90 days of incarceration.

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While Maryland State Police doesn’t specifically track the theft of political yard signs, local police chiefs and the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office were able to speak to the issue, about a month before the 2020 general election in which the presidency is on the ballot.

In Sykesville, four minors were charged in one case with theft of property valued less than $100, according to police Chief Michael Spaulding. “This does often happen during major elections and it is happening again now,” he wrote in an email.

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Spaulding said political sign theft is not “prevalent” in the town, though there have been several cases.

Resident Bob Betz said he contacted Sykesville police after his signs supporting President Donald Trump’s re-election went missing.

“We sort of expected it,” Betz said. “Politics right now is not tolerant.”

Betz’s outdoor cameras captured footage of what appeared to be two teens taking one of his signs late at night Sept. 27. He recovered the sign, a little bent, under a tree at a nearby park.

While watching the Sept. 29 presidential debate between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Betz saw an SUV pull up to his home, he said. What appeared to be a teenage girl jumped out of the vehicle, grabbed a Trump sign and drove off. He contacted the police, then shortly after the officer left, the SUV returned and the passenger took another sign, Betz said. Cruising the neighborhood, the officer found the SUV and recovered Betz’s signs.

The sheriff’s office, which typically covers areas that aren’t served by municipal or state police, recorded nine instances of political sign theft between Aug. 1 and Oct. 5, according to Cpl. Jonathan Light.

“At this time, while some cases are still open, the majority lacked any suspect information and were suspended,” Light wrote.

In Westminster, police Chief Thomas Ledwell estimates there have been about four reports of political yard signs or flags being taken. “If a suspect is identified,” he wrote, “the officer would apply for charges unless the victim requested an alternative such as return of the sign or restitution.”

Westminster resident Wendy Perzynski said her husband Todd discovered their “Veterans for Biden” sign went missing overnight Sept. 25. She wrote in an email it seemed “pretty low” for someone to steal from a veteran like her husband.

Ben Powel, who lives between Taneytown and Westminster, said three of his homemade signs were disturbed in August. He made signs that read, “Black Lives Matter,” and “Abolish ICE,” referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Powel found one sign flung across the street and others were stolen. He said he hasn’t contacted police.

“It’s just a little upsetting that such a mild statement of support would be [so] offensive to somebody they thought it needed to disappear," Powel said, noting he just makes more signs when others go missing.

Chief Jason Etzler in Taneytown said that police department has had one instance this year of a minor taking a political sign, though the owner did not wish to pursue charges.

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In Mount Airy, Reitz said he was aware of only one report of theft or destruction of a political sign.

Chief John Hess of Manchester was not aware of any political sign theft in his jurisdiction.

Hampstead police Chief Dave Snyder wrote their department hasn’t had “significant issues” related to political signs being stolen. In his experience, more political signs tend to pop up as Election Day, Nov. 3, draws near.

“As we get closer, emotions will run high and people may act in ways they would not typically behave like,” Snyder wrote.

Hampstead resident Gavin Maleson had a Biden campaign sign taken from his yard overnight last week. He said he didn’t report it to the police because it felt like a minor crime, though he was still troubled by it.

“I was pretty darn furious," Maleson said. He’s since put out two more signs.

This election cycle feels more “aggressive” than in years past, Maleson said, and people seem to have stronger opinions about this year’s presidential candidates. He described Hampstead as a friendly community, but said taking a sign from someone’s yard is disappointing.

There was a consensus among the law enforcement officials interviewed that any reported thefts or damages would be taken seriously and investigated by police.

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