On Oct. 7, Mike Rowe, a member of the Mathews County Board of Supervisors and candidate for reelection, was served with a summons charging him with stealing, on Oct. 1, a political “Vote No” sign that was at the base of the Civil War monument located on the corner of the public square, next to the old courthouse in Mathews. The summons was issued based upon a citizen complaint and the matter was not investigated by law enforcement. The maximum punishment for such an offense is 12 months in jail and/or a fine of $2,500.
As Commonwealth’s Attorney, it is my responsibility to determine if there is sufficient evidence to prosecute charges filed in the Mathews County courts. I felt it was important for me to make this determination prior to the Nov. 2 election. For the reasons stated below, I believe there is insufficient evidence to prosecute this matter and so I will be asking the Court to dismiss this charge on Oct. 25, at 9 a.m.
Beginning in 1904, Virginia law allowed Civil War monuments, paid by private funds, to be erected on the public square of a county. But whether a monument, constructed and installed with private funds, remained privately owned or became public property, after it was placed on public land, and what rights or obligations the monument sponsor had regarding future maintenance, etc., was normally determined by a signed agreement between the monument sponsor and the locality or by some other document. I was unable to locate any agreement signed by Mathews County regarding this monument. The charter of The Mathews Monument Association, recorded in Deed Book 17 at Page 611, states that the purpose of the Association “is to build and erect … a monument … and to care for and own said monument and preserve it.” An article in the June 26, 1913, edition of The Mathews Journal, however, reports that the Board of Supervisors gave the United Daughters of the Confederacy permission to erect a fence around the monument.
Assuming the monument erected in 1912 remained privately owned after it was placed on the public square, it is undisputed that the monument was erected on publicly owned land, and it remains on publicly owned land today. Whether the political sign was placed on privately owned land or publicly owned land is an important issue in this case. The Mathews County Zoning Ordinance does not allow political signs to be placed on publicly owned land. I am not aware of any municipality that allows political signs to be placed on publicly owned land. In Virginia, political signs placed on the public right-of-way of state highways are removed by VDOT employees and are frequently held at the VDOT office for about 30 days to be discarded, unless retrieved by the owner. I am of the opinion it was not unlawful for Mr. Rowe to remove the political sign from the Mathews Courthouse Square, which is publicly owned land.
The next issue I needed to resolve was whether Mr. Rowe had the “intent to steal” the sign, which is an element I must prove in every larceny case. The sign was taken around 10:30 a.m., in broad daylight, when Mr. Rowe could be easily seen. Mr. Rowe kept the sign until he delivered it to the Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 11. The sign had no resale value and there were many other signs just like it in the community. Mr. Rowe made no effort to conceal his taking of the sign. In July 2020, the Mathews County Board of Supervisors (the Board) received a packet of research information from the Mathews Memorial Library, regarding the Civil War monument. Based upon the research information, the Board concluded in 2020 that the Civil War monument was located on public property. Mr. Rowe said he removed the political sign because it was located on public property.
For the above reasons, I believe there is insufficient evidence to prove this case “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the burden I must meet in court and, therefore, I will ask the court to dismiss this charge.