In likely the most hotly contested misdemeanor trial in Austin’s recent history, a panel of five city jurors on Wednesday handed activist Antonio Buehler a legal victory, deliberating nearly six hours before acquitting him of failing to comply with the order of an officer in a controversial arrest on New Year’s Day 2012.
Buehler, a 37-year-old Army veteran and outspoken founder of the Peaceful Streets Project, had been facing a fine of up to $500 for the offense, which stemmed from his refusal to put his arms behind his back as he was told when he started taking pictures and shouting questions at officers he said he believed were assaulting a woman.
Outside the courtroom, nearly a dozen supporters clapped and cheered after the verdict was read. Buehler, who has been locked in legal disputes with the Austin Police Department since the incident, said he was fortunate to have his community support him in a case that has drawn national attention over the rights of citizens to video record police officers.
“I think that far too often people side with authority, even when authority is wrong, and I was very grateful that the jury had the courage to break with that,” he said. “I want the people of Austin to question why is it that their tax dollars are going to push bogus charges.”
Buehler and officer Officer Patrick Oborski were cleared of felony charges in April in the dispute that arose between them about 1:30 a.m. outside a downtown convenience store at Lamar Boulevard and 10th Street.
In the rare misdemeanor trial that began Thursday, the main points of contention had been whether Oborski had enough reasonable suspicion to detain Buehler and whether the order the officer gave him was lawful.
Oborski and officer Robert Snider, testifying in public for the first time last week, said they deemed Buehler a threat when he started yelling at them as they pulled a female passenger out of a car during a drunken driving investigation. Oborski said he felt Buehler’s spit on him as the two engaged in a heated face-to-face argument and stressed that he didn’t know who Buehler was or whether he was intoxicated.
But Buehler told jurors he had been concerned by the officers’ use of force and stepped forward. Witnesses said Buehler did not physically interfere and that officers had been quick to threaten others with arrest that night.
The five jurors declined to comment after the verdict, but two said it was a tough decision and that the jury initially had been divided.
Buehler has since been arrested several more times for minor infractions while video recording officers as part of the Peaceful Streets Project. A federal lawsuit he filed against the Police Department on civil rights violations remains pending.
Outside the courtroom Wednesday, his lawyer, Millie Thompson, told reporters she and Buehler were prepared to take the other misdemeanors against him to trial.