Wasser Wins Sign Showdown With Chester Boro
Business owner found not guilty of violating the sign ordinance.
At the end of the day, the decision came down to a matter of inches.
Less than 26 inches, to be exact.
As the end of the sign saga played out on May 23 in Chester Borough Municipal Court, Once Upon a Table owner Charles Wasser was found not guilty of violating the sign ordinance as his 26-inch sign could not be proven to impede pedestrian traffic across a 12-foot sidewalk.
In his ruling, Judge C. William Bowkley, Jr. did not rule in favor of Wasser because of the defendant's position there was infringement of his first amendment rights. In fact, Bowkley ruled that the prosecution did not provide enough evidence that Wasser's sign obstructed pedestrian traffic, which is what the summons maintained.
"What you have here is a sign, set diagonally against the base of the steps outside of a business on a segment of sidewalk that is twelve feet wide," Bowkley said. "This is a minimus incursion and on that basis I am entering a finding of not guilty."
The ruling came after a long night of what Judge Bowkley characterized as "excellent presentations" by both prosecutor Carl Perrone and defense attorney Anthony Sposaro.
According to Wasser, this stand in court was the culmination of years of frustration with the borough for 'inconsistent' code enforcement that was 'hurting local business owners'.
When Sposaro addressed the court, he cited a recent surpreme court ruling on a sign ordinance "legally indisinguishable" from Chester Borough's that was found unconstitutional.
"A statute is invalid if it prohibits a substantial amount of protected speech. There is no way that the medium of a sign can be used to convey a political message under this ordinance. Ordinances that forclose an entire medium of expression can only be legal is they are protecting a compelling government interest. Unless the government doesn’t want to be criticized for what it is doing, I can't see what that would be," Spasaro said. "To argue that this type of sign impedes the flow of traffic would be a sad commentary. To hide behind that would be a sad commentary."
In his response, Perrone did not mince words.
"The fact that he put a political message on this is a sham. He is just mad that he is not allowed to basically put sandwiches and whatever else he wants on the sign. There was never any type of prohibitive approach to somehow surpress the speech of this individual," Perrone said. "What they have done here is to set up a straw man in order to knock it down. And that is a sham. It is not an honest protest. I think that is important. His so-called political protest."
In the remarks before his ruling, Bowkley took exception to that characterization.
"You called his defense a sham and I don’t see that at all," Bowkley said. "I think it was intelligent and creative lawyering. I think he did an excellent job in framing the case. We do it every day. I am not offended by it."
After the ruling, Wasser was pleased to have won and to not have to pay a fine, but he also acknowledged the prosecutor's remarks on additional violations they could act on going forward.
"There have been prior advertisement type messages that have been placed on the sign and there has been a continuing issues of compliance," Perrone said. "If you look at the summons, it sites several ordinances, not all of which were charged. And they would not be precluded in the future. As part of a B-1 Zone he is not allowed to display this sign. He has been notified and I am notifying him here in court now, so no notice needs to be givne going forward."
And while Wasser may have disproved the old adage "you can't fight city hall" he was not eager to go another round.
"Its too expensive to keep fighting," Wasser said. "I am going to need to talk to my wife and my attorney before deciding what is next."
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