It was a dog-day afternoon in East Hampton Town Justice Court Monday, February 10, where the trial of the owner of Petit Blue, an East Hampton village toy store, Colleen Moeller, was held. The bench trial was presided over by Justice Lisa Rana.
It lasted about one hour, with two witnesses taking the stand, Rob Jahoda, a code enforcement officer for the village, and Moeller. Moeller was charged in early November of last year with two violations of the village code, one accusing her of having an illegal sign outside her store, and the other charging that she was illegally displaying merchandise outside her store.
Petit Blue fronts the Reutershan parking lot, a couple of dozen yards away from Stop & Shop.
The sign in question was a small wooden plaque with the word “Welcome” on it, hung around the neck of a life-sized plush stuffed animal, a Golden Retriever that Moeller said during her testimony was named “Happy” by her daughter. There also was a small chalk board hanging up outside the store, which children could scribble on.
Jahoda had written up the alleged violations November 8 of last year. If found guilty, Moeller could be fined up to $1000 and be sentenced to 15 days in jail, though jail time seems quite unlikely, whatever the verdict.
During his cross examination of Jahoda, Daniel Rodgers, the attorney representing Moeller, unrolled a large doormat with the word “Welcome” written on it. He asked if that welcome mat was not a sign under the village code. Jahoda responded by saying, “Under our policy, a welcome mat is not a violation.”
During his closing argument, Rodgers said that the village’s sign law was unenforceable, because it was overly broad. “Just about anything could qualify as a sign,” Rodgers said. He read the definition of “sign” from the code: “Any advertising structure, display board, screen, structure, shadow box, poster, mannequin, banner, pennant, cloth, bill, bulletin, painting, printing or other device or object or part thereof used to announce, identify, declare, demonstrate, display, or in any manner advertise or attract the attention of the public by means of letters, words, figures, or colors.”
When Moeller took the stand, she explained that the stuffed animal had been a gift to her daughter from the girl’s grandmother, and was not for sale, which was also true for the chalk board. Moeller said that during the offseason, because so many stores in the village close up, “you can’t tell which stores are open,” which was why she put the plush dog with the sign outside her business. Brian Lester, the prosecuting attorney for the village, questioned why Moeller could not have put the sign inside the store behind one of the shop’s windows.
During his closing argument, Rana quizzed Lester about the charge of illegally displaying “goods and merchandise” outside the store, since the chalk board and the stuffed animal were not for sale.
Rana said she would be issuing a written decision, and that if she were to find Moeller guilty of either or both counts, she would schedule a new date to decide the appropriate penalty.