Taos Sign Man Convicted and Fined: $300!
On April 12, 2012, sign man and activist, Jeff Northrup was convicted of violating the Town of Taos sign ordinance by Judge Richard Chavez. It’s a criminal charge, according to the officer. Twice before muni judge Eugene Sanchez dismissed similar allegations. Northrup is well known for picketing and erecting small sandwich board signs, calling attention to corruption at the Town of Taos and Kit Carson Electric. The town’s attorney, who claimed they couldn’t get a fair trial in his court, excused Judge Sanchez. So they went “forum shopping” and found a willing judge, who fined the sign man $300 and $29 in court costs.
According to testimony by a reluctant cop, Sgt. David Trujillo, the Town Manager, Abigail Adame, called Lt. David Maggio on March 16th and ordered out town coppers to cite the sign man. The citation for the March 16th incident was thrown out but the following day Trujillo found the right ordinance and issued a citation on March 17th for another incident. Sgt. Trujillo candidly admitted that the town police department had better things to do and that it should be up to the town’s sign code department to enforce the ordinance. He also said Northrup cooperated but wouldn’t voluntarily remove his signs.
The sign code is vague and arbitrarily enforced, while making a distinction in its definition of commercial and non-commercial signs. According to the code, violators are to be given 24 hours to correct a non-complying sign. Northrup was given thirty minutes. He was also accused of endangering public safety but no evidence was presented. Further, he was accused of having freestanding signs in the highway right away without town permission. Apparently, local business establishments, including the Mayor’s bar and restaurant all have permission for creating clutter along the highway but Northrup does not.
Judge Chavez did not say which part of the code Northrup violated. The code itself claims to protect both noncommercial and commercial signs equally but in practice, it appears that Northrup has been singled out. A number of attorneys are working behind the scenes on his case.
One of the more interesting issues concerns the width of the highway right away itself and whether it is a state or federal route. How does the town come to have the authority over a major highway to regulate speech? Course DOT doesn’t want vendors along the highway so they probably don’t’ want pickets either. DOT has ruined the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge as a destination for visitors and vendors.
Currently, Northrup is appealing a prior criminal trespass conviction to District Court. In the July 4th (2010) incident at Mayor Darren Cordova’s in-town apartment, Northrup testified that he allegedly saw illegal and dangerous fireworks activity, contrary to town ordinance, outside. A private party was then in progress at the Mayor’s digs. Northrup allegedly went to the door to warn the partygoers about the use of fireworks in the driveway and was subsequently charged by town cops with trespassing. During testimony at his trial, Judge Chavez presiding, it became apparent that the Mayor and his friendly witnesses gave contradictory testimony regarding the time of the incident, which should have resulted in an acquittal.
District Court Judge John Paternoster, reacting above, has instituted stiff conditions of release for the alleged criminal, forbidding him from leaving Taos County during the appeal. When the Northrup criminal trespass case goes to court, it is expected that allegations of perjury will be brought forward—allegations ignored by muni Judge Richard Chavez when he convicted the protester. Northrup earns a living as a respectable and honest notary so now he must contact his attorney, who must contact the town’s attorney and the judge, and then wait for a reply. He says he losing out on notary jobs due to the bureaucratic nature of the criminal justice system.
No “Trouble Makers” Need Apply!
On Thursday in The Taos News, the chairman of the Kit Carson Coop nominating committee warned off potential candidates for the Board of Trustees. Allegedly, the chairman, Billy Knight, said the committee doesn’t want trouble makers running for the board. “Causing trouble,” as Knight put it, is code for activists. In the past, everyone from Las Brujas and Lovely Lorraine Coca-Ruiz at the County to activist school board members have been called “trouble-makers.” Knight, a former progressive democrat, apparently supports the 1% today in Taos.
The courts have ganged up, too, against activists. Last year a district court judge threw down an injunction against a petition aimed at asking for a vote by members during the annual meeting to remove KCEC trustees who mismanaged the Coop. Later a district court judge refused to hear a petition calling for a grand jury to investigate the town and Coop’s relationship regarding the controversial Command Center. In recent years, district courts have come down hard on issues of free speech—protecting public figures from criticism–and condoning retaliation by allowing spurious lawsuits.
A forum will be held April 19, from 6-9 p.m., at the Taos County Commission Chambers for the six candidates vying for election to become judges. It might be a good time to ask why historic safeguards concerning the First Amendment don’t apply in Taos, New Mexico. Caveat: If you ask questions at the forum, they might call you a “trouble maker.” Fines, imprisonment, or worse, the fellow below, might follow you home. Taos ain’t safe.