Attorney Todd Perkins has two Black Lives Matter signs in the front yard of his Grosse Pointe Shores home, and he recently received a citation from the city for the larger of the two signs.

Attorney Todd Perkins has two Black Lives Matter signs in the front yard of his Grosse Pointe Shores home, and he recently received a citation from the city for the larger of the two signs.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

Black Lives Matter sign citation leads to federal lawsuit against Grosse Pointe Shores

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published December 19, 2020


GROSSE POINTE SHORES — A since-rescinded violation notice over a Black Lives Matter sign in a front yard has led to a lawsuit against Grosse Pointe Shores filed by one of the city’s residents.

On Dec. 8, Shores resident Todd Russell Perkins — a prominent local attorney — filed suit against the Shores and two of its public safety officers in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The suit alleges that the Shores violated Perkins’ First Amendment rights and civil rights by issuing him a citation over the Black Lives Matter sign, and it argues that Shores’ sign ordinance is “constitutionally vague and overbroad.”

Perkins said the city’s sign ordinance, as written, doesn’t apply to this type of sign, and the ordinance needs to be changed. In addition, he feels the citation was racially motivated.

“I hope that no one else has to suffer an infringement on their constitutional rights,” Perkins said.

The problem started when an unknown person contacted the city to complain about Perkins’ sign, which was affixed to a tree in his front yard. On Nov. 20, Perkins said, an officer from the Public Safety Department left a report in his mailbox informing him that the sign was in violation of the city’s size limitations, as outlined in the sign ordinance.

Perkins said he didn’t see the report until about a week later, but the report warned that if hadn’t removed the sign by Nov. 24, he would get a civil infraction citation. By the time he actually saw the report, he had already gotten the citation and, with it, an order that he contact Shores Municipal Court within 14 days because he would need to appear in court over the violation.

The city has since withdrawn the citation, and officials say racism was never the reason a ticket was issued, but Perkins is still moving forward with litigation against the community, where he has lived for roughly 10 years.

The Black Lives Matter sign remains in place.

“It’s not going anywhere,” Perkins said of the Black Lives Matter sign, which represents a nationwide movement against the killing of Black people, many of whom have died at the hands of police.

Shores City Attorney Brian Renaud insisted that the ticket wasn’t issued because of racism. Renaud pointed out that a second, smaller Black Lives Matter sign in Perkins’ yard that falls within the allowed size limitation wasn’t ticketed.

“It was not racially motivated, as alleged,” Renaud said. “It was based solely on the size of the sign. The city and the officers that issued the violation didn’t have any racial animus at all.”

Renaud said the city’s sign ordinance allows for a maximum size of 7 square feet; the larger of Perkins’ signs was around 16 square feet, he said.

Upon further review of the language in the city’s sign ordinance, Renaud said the city decided to rescind the ticket because he said it wasn’t clear that Perkins’ sign fell under the ordinance at all. The ordinance specifically references political signs, garage sale signs, building/contractor signs, open house directional signs and home security provider signs, but it makes no mention of any other types of signs, such as social message signs like Perkins’ sign or congratulatory signs for those who’ve recently graduated from a particular high school or college, for example. As a result, Renaud said, the city rescinded the ticket Dec. 7. Perkins filed his lawsuit against the city Dec. 8.

“The city’s going to look at its ordinance to see if it needs to be fine-tuned,” Renaud said. “(The ticket) was not racially motivated. We’re trying to do the right thing.”

Although the Shores is no longer pursuing legal action against Perkins over the sign, he said he still felt he needed to move forward with a lawsuit against the city because he said their actions constituted “a violation of my free speech.”

“It’s a violation of my rights,” Perkins continued. “It was an action that was meant to oppress and suppress.”

He said this is a fight over systemic racism and a fight to be treated fairly.

“That’s what we’re fighting, is the system,” Perkins said.

A decision in Perkins’ case hadn’t been reached as of press time, but the court did issue a decision on one of his motions. On Dec. 10, U.S. District Court Judge David M. Lawson denied Perkins’ motion for a temporary restraining order against the Shores and Shores Public Safety officer Zef Bojaj and Lt. Kenneth Werenski. According to Lawson’s ruling, Perkins was seeking the temporary restraining order to block the city from issuing any additional citations to Perkins or from proceeding with a scheduled court date on the original violation.

As Lawson wrote, “A temporary restraining order is an extraordinary remedy that is generally reserved for emergency situations in which a party may suffer irreparable harm during the time required to give notice to the opposite party or where notice itself may precipitate the harm. … From the information so far presented, it is apparent to the court that the alleged harm produced by enforcement of the ordnance in question will not be triggered by the delivery of notice to the adverse parties, because the infliction of the alleged harm by the defendants’ enforcement efforts already is completed, or at least underway.”

Saying that he hoped the city would “make me whole” from this experience, Perkins said he’s seeking financial damages, but he didn’t specify a dollar amount. He insisted he isn’t seeking a financial award for himself, however, saying that any amount he might receive would be donated to a local organization.

“It would be to enrich the community,” Perkins said.

Perkins said his neighbors — many of whom he’s never met — have been coming out in droves to offer their support.

“There’s a lot of neighbors that have written me emails, walked down to my house (to express concern),” Perkins said. “Since this has happened, I’ve had neighbors come down to my house with a bottle of wine. I’ve gotten lots of support.”

Perkins said he’s taking action to prevent this from happening to another resident.

“The most important aspect of (this lawsuit) is that it doesn’t happen to someone else,” Perkins said. “It’s an experience that we’re going to grow from.”