Jury selection began Wednesday in the trial of a former Costa Mesa city employee accused of destroying a political campaign sign during a contentious election season.
The Orange County district attorney's office alleges that Steven Charles White, 40, who was a city maintenance worker and Costa Mesa resident, ripped up a sign advertising a slate of candidates he disagreed with in October 2012.
A private investigator working for a campaigning councilman recorded the incident, but White's attorney told prospective jurors Wednesday that it's simply a case of mistaken identity.
"Somebody tore up a $5 sign; it wasn't him," said White's lawyer, Jeremy Goldman.
Goldman said prosecutors previously offered a plea agreement of community service and a small fine, but the defense turned down the deal.
"[White] is confident that the jury is going to find him innocent at the end of the day," Goldman said.
Some prospective jurors indicated that they were skeptical about being assigned to a trial focused on the destruction of a single political sign.
Most of them raised their hands when Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Mestman asked if they thought the case was ridiculous.
"Not the crime of the century," Mestman said, but he reminded jurors that such an act is nonetheless illegal.
The alleged crime occurred during a heated election in Costa Mesa that centered on a City Council race and a ballot initiative — known as Measure V — that would have instituted a charter form of governance.
Reports of campaign sign vandalism and destruction — on all sides — were widespread during the race.
In October 2012, the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn., a fiscally conservative group, posted a video of a man ripping up one sign before removing another and tossing it aside.
The first sign advertised a slate of candidates known as the 3Ms — Councilmen Steve Mensinger and Gary Monahan and Planning Commissioner Colin McCarthy.
The second sign advocated the charter initiative backed by then-Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer, Mensinger and Monahan.
The Orange County Employees Assn., which represents Costa Mesa municipal workers, including White at the time, campaigned heavily against Measure V and the 3Ms.
The district attorney's office announced in January that White had been charged with one count of misdemeanor vandalism for what was depicted in the video.
Soon after, Costa Mesa announced that White no longer worked for the city, but officials would not say who made the decision that he should leave.
If convicted, White faces sentencing ranging from probation to a year in jail, a $1,000 fine and restitution.
The trial at the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach is expected to last two days before heading to deliberations.
— Daily Pilot reporter Bradley Zint contributed to this report.