TAMPA, Florida (CNN) -- Three defendants were sentenced to 15 years each in state prison Friday for uprooting a stop sign at an intersection where three teen-agers were killed in a crash a few hours later.

Nissa Baillie, 21, Thomas Miller, 20, and Christopher Cole, 20, each faced 27 to 46 years in prison after being convicted of manslaughter in the incident. It is believed to be the first U.S. case in which the removal of a traffic sign has led to a manslaughter conviction.1

The horrible 1997 deaths of three Florida youths were made even more tragic by the fact that a simple, childish act of theft led to the car accident that claimed their lives. After the aforementioned stop sign was stolen, the teens unknowingly coasted through an intersection and were t-boned by an 8-ton truck. Three deaths and three lengthy prison sentences, all stemming from one lousy stop sign. A stop sign. Traffic signs look cool hanging in pool rooms and garages, but they are definitely not worth going to jail over.

Any ignoramus with a socket set can steal a street sign, but it's much more challenging and rewarding to locate these signs in fun, legal ways. My collection rivals or dwarfs those of most people I know, and I have an interesting story behind each sign that doesn't involve running from the cops. I've been picking up traffic signs in the following places for several years with impressive results:

Trash Piles at Construction Sites - Piles of garbage at road construction sites sometimes yield mangled signs that have been run over, bent, or otherwise made useless. Since they are almost always made of aluminum, anyone with a bench vise and rubber mallet can quickly bend most any sign back into shape, so don't totally write off a sign that's been severely damaged. Although anything that has been thrown away is technically in the public domain, it doesn't hurt to ask someone if you can have the sign before you waltz off with it. Again, these signs are aluminum, and many construction companies (and the highway department) will recycle them for the money. Taking a sign intended for recycling does constitute theft, so be sure to ask if a sign is meant to be thrown away or not! If a sign is sitting around in a pile of junk after the construction project has wrapped, it's normally OK to help yourself. I picked my huge X-shaped Railroad Crossing sign out of a two-year-old waste pile by some railroad tracks. (How many people do you know have managed to steal one of those things?)

Accident Scenes - A large number of car wrecks involve damage to road signs, but don't think that you can just make off with a sign because it has a few dents and bloody handprints on it. Unless the sign is totally destroyed it will frequently be placed back on its post. If the post is heavily damaged, however, the highway department will normally haul the entire thing away for recycling. Sometimes it takes months for the highway department to dispose of the damaged signs, if they ever do it at all. (This is where you come in.) In order to determine whether or not the road workers will ever come back for a sign, keep an eye on it for a while. If it's still lying in a ditch after six months, consider it fair game. Do your part in preventing roadside clutter: take it home!

The City Dump - I found my Billy Alexander Road and Church Cross Road signs leaned up against the used oil recycling bin at the local garbage dump. Signs that turn up at the dump are not always in pristine condition (it's a dump, y'know) but bullet holes, dents, and other blemishes can only be considered "character". It's a rarity to find road signs of any kind at the dump since most people that take them usually hang onto them, but they do occasionally show up. Keep in mind that placing an object in a dumpster also moves it into the public domain, and pulling cool stuff out of the trash is no crime. However, if it's a recycling center, they won't allow anything to be taken from the bins, so don't even bother asking.

Rivers and Bridges - You know those massive piles of driftwood and trash that build up beneath bridges and in parts of rivers? I've pulled some interesting things out of them, most notably my superb Hideaway Lane street sign.2 All kinds of signs will show up on these obstructions; I've passed on several shredded NO TRESPASSING signs. Signs will also turn up on the bottoms of rivers and creeks, often with the steel post still attached. I've discovered signs in very obscure creeks on private property, so how these things make their way into bodies of water is anyone's guess. The best time for scouting a river for signs is shortly after a large flood has deposited a fresh layer of garbage everywhere. My advice to anyone that ventures onto one of these driftwood piles: watch for snakes.

eBay, Antique Stores, Flea Markets, Yard Sales, Industrial Suppliers - I've never paid anything for a street sign, but if you don't enjoy tracking down signs in the wild, there are many ways of purchasing them. Antique shops can be useful for tracking down rare and vintage signs, although these signs are sold as collectibles and tend to be rather pricey. Signs often turn up at flea markets and yard sales as well, but the quality and pricing of these signs will vary wildly. Modern street name signs tend to run between $4-$15 (depending on size and uniqueness of name), while older signs, especially those with the letters stamped directly into the metal, can go for hundreds of dollars. As for other traffic signs, the sky's the limit in terms of pricing. eBay and industrial/janitorial catalogs offer a wide selection of signs for sale, but the prices are ridiculous. Use common sense while buying signs from a third party, as they are often stolen. If the sign looks fairly new, don't be afraid to ask the seller where it came from. (I highly doubt the police put a lot of time into searching for that MERGE LEFT sign somebody boosted four years ago, but possession of stolen property is a crime.)

Whether you scour dumpsters and road construction sites for signs or wuss out and buy a few off eBay, legally obtaining street signs can be much more fun than simply swiping them off the side of the road. A weird, challenging hobby or petty theft...which will you choose?

1 - http://www.cnn.com/US/9706/20/stop.sign/index.html

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