State Sen. John Huppenthal's actions were "brash and impetuous," but they weren't theft or tampering when he removed a political sign from a polling place and yanked it from the hands of a 78-year-old woman on Election Day, a judge ruled Thursday.
Judge Daniel Washburn found Huppenthal, R-Chandler, innocent of the theft charge because the state couldn't prove who owned the sign or placed it.
Huppenthal proved he had permission to remove the sign, a fact that fell in his favor on the second charge of tampering with a political sign as well.
"I'm just glad justice prevailed in the end," Huppenthal said. "Now I can focus 100 percent of my attention on balancing the budget and improving education."
The sign, which was staked Nov. 4 in front of a polling place at an apartment complex at 4909 W. Joshua Blvd. in Chandler, contained a message that was critical of Huppenthal's involvement in a clean-air issue at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe.
Huppenthal said the message was misleading, so he got permission from the apartment manager to remove it.
Ruth Levin, the Democratic worker who struggled to keep him from taking it, said while he may have won the case on a technicality, he is not absolved ethically.
"Opinions have to be discussed; they cannot be silenced," Levin said.
At the July 29 trial, his attorney, Booker T. Evans, argued that the state did not meet its burden of proof for a theft conviction because no one could establish the ownership of the sign.
There was a question at trial of whether the sign belonged to the Arizona Democratic Party or a political action committee that got most of its funding from the party.
Prosecutor Caron Close argued that Huppenthal's actions met the definition of theft in Arizona: He deprived someone else of their property by taking it.
Washburn said there was no theft because the apartment complex had the authority to remove the sign and gave him permission to do it. And there was no theft when Huppenthal yanked it from Levin's hands because she couldn't claim ownership of it either.
The statute for tampering with a political sign says a person can remove a political sign if the owner of the property on which it is placed gives permission.
The statute also says a person can't remove a sign "of any candidate for public office."
Washburn said the language is clear and does not include signs of political action committees.
Huppenthal, who has served in the Legislature for 16 years, was in a vicious race with Democrat Ted Maish, whom he easily defeated for the Senate seat.
Huppenthal said he has formed an exploratory committee to run for State Superintendent of Education.