State of New Jersey v. Schad

307 N.J. Super. 493, 704 A.2d 1337 (App. Div. 1998)
  • Opinion Date: February 3, 1998

ZONING; SIGNS—A sign ordinance that does not expressly cover signs that are inside a store, but can be seen from the outside does not apply to those signs.

An owner of two adult entertainment stores was twice convicted, in separate trials, of violating a municipality’s sign ordinance. Each trial pertained to a different point in time, but involved the same facts and law. The alleged violations concerned multiple color transparency photos displayed in the stores and visible only from outside the premises. The owner contended that the transparency displays placed inside the windows of the stores were not “signs” within the meaning of the municipality’s sign ordinance. The municipality argued that the signs fell within the concept of a “display,” as contemplated by the ordinance.

First, the Appellate Division stated that the word “display” could not be “reviewed in a vacuum…its meaning must be assessed in light of the other words in the ordinance of which it is a part.” Applying the rule of noscitur a sociis, that the meaning of a word may be controlled by the words which surround it, the Court held that the ordinance clearly applied only to exterior signs. Therefore, it found it irrelevant whether the definition of “display” included the transparencies in question. Another ordinance cited by the municipality referred only to temporary window signs affixed to a window. The Court analyzed that ordinance under the principle of expressio unius est exclusio alterius (that the express mention of one thing implies the exclusion of other things) and found that it did not apply to signs not affixed to windows. Although zoning ordinances are liberally interpreted in favor of the municipality, the Court stated that the wording must be clear and unambiguous to avoid requiring reasonably intelligent people to guess at its meaning. In the absence of such explicit language, doubts as to applicability of an ordinance must be resolved in favor of the one charged. Since the wording of the relevant provisions was not broad enough to suggest an intent to regulate interior transparency displays, the Court reversed both lower court convictions.