No charges over sign scuttle for Carol Whitmore

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Prosecutors say the Commissioner lacked any intent to steal Jason Bearden’s political signs.

Prosecutors will not pursue any charges against Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore over allegations she stole her opponents’ signs.

State Attorney Susan Lopez informed Gov. Ron DeSantis in writing that there will be no charges filed against the Republican, who last month lost in a GOP Primary to newcomer Jason Bearden.

“The State cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant possessed the criminal intent to steal the signs,” read a memo from Lopez. “Whitmore was under the mistaken belief that 2 of the signs she removed were on (Shawn) Kaleta’s private property and that he had given her permission to remove said signs.”

Whitmore in June removed signs promoting Bearden’s candidacy and took them directly to the Holmes Beach police headquarters. She consistently maintained a belief that the signs were wrongly placed on private property or in the public right of way in violation of local ordinances. Police, however, said even if those facts were true, citizens should not take it upon themselves to remove signs.

Bearden said he wanted charges pressed against Whitmore and filed a criminal police complaint making as much clear. Candidates in other parts of the state have faced criminal charges for similar action, and theft of signs is a misdemeanor punishable with 60 days in jail or a $500 fine.

State Attorney Ed Brodksy asked for the case involving a political figure to be moved out of the 12th Judicial Circuit, and DeSantis assigned it to Florida’s 13th Judicial Circuit instead. But shortly after that, the Governor suspended Andrew Warren, the State Attorney there. DeSantis appointed Lopez as a replacement.

Lopez made the decision not to file on Aug. 19, days before the Republican Primary between Whitmore and Bearden.

The decision not to prosecute leaned heavily on intent. A memo noted police initially shared Whitmore’s belief that a local ordinance prohibited placement of political signs in the public right of way. But the City Attorney informed them an outside court case had ruled such restrictions as a violation of free speech, thus making the local ordinance unenforceable.

Still, the law requires Whitmore to have “knowingly and unlawfully” stolen property in order to be charged with a crime.

“A defendant cannot be convicted of theft unless the prosecution proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant obtained or used somebody else’s property with a specific intent to steal,” the memo states.

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