Omaha Jury Finds Restaurant Owner Not Guilty For Tweet Warning
February 10, 2017 (Fault Lines) – If you watch the news for longer than ten minutes, the idea of obstructing a government operation sounds more like a heroic act than a crime. But Nebraska takes issue with that kind of obstruction, to the tune of a year in jail and a $1000 fine.
An Omaha restaurant owner found himself in the crosshairs of city prosecutors after stumbling into the middle of a sting operation. For those familiar with the War on Drugs, and the War on Robbers, and the War on All Crimes, the sting operation is familiar.
Highly skilled undercover agents ingratiate themselves into the worst of criminal organizations, joining in on the criminal activity to gain the trust of the criminal mastermind being targeted. Imagine the danger if one of those targets recognized the undercover agents and not only took their picture, but send it out via a highly technical distribution system to other criminal targets.
Sounds dangerous. Sounds dramatic. Of course, that isn’t at all what happened here.
John Horavatinovich owns Salt, a restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska. Last August, the Nebraska State Patrol decided to make sure Omaha restaurants weren’t serving alcohol to kids. They conducted a “compliance check.”
Testimony at a trial earlier this week described the operation. It was less than sophisticated. Two state troopers recruited some family members to see if bars would sell them alcohol despite being underage.
The teens were paid $50 for their time, regardless of the result of the operation.
The compliance checks have been conducted since 1997 with various law enforcement agencies and Project Extra Mile, an organization that works to prevent underage drinking.
The compliance check was pretty routine by the time the crew got to Salt.
Two troopers in plain clothes drove the teens in an unmarked vehicle to the businesses and stayed nearby in case things went awry, testified Christopher Kober, a State Patrol investigator.
The teens sat at Salt 88’s bar and ordered two Bud Lights, Alberico testified. The bartender asked for identification and the teens, trained on what to do, presented their real driver’s licenses. The bartender refused service and the teens left, Alberico testified.
Luckily they had the nearby troopers in case things “went awry” because they did. Salt must have realized the kids were trouble, because the restaurant sent a warning to its fellow businesses:
Assistant City Prosecutor Makayla Maclin said in her opening statement Monday that on Aug.13, Horvatinovich tweeted photos showing the faces of two teens with the comment: “Omaha restaurant peeps: These two are trying to ruin your night w/sting operations in town.”
The blown cover was discovered when one of the teens was informed his face had been posted on Twitter.
Partway through the sting that night, Alberico was told that a photo showing his face was circulating on the Internet — posted from the Salt 88 restaurant account.
Alberico, who has his own Twitter account, found the tweet — and a photo of him.
Police apparently felt that the danger from yuppie restaurant-goers was too much to continue the operation, and had to shut it down for the night.
Former State Patrol Sgt. Robert Elliott, who oversaw the various teams, learned of the tweet that night and told the team to return to the State Patrol office.
Elliott testified that he felt the teens could not continue to work undercover because their faces were revealed.
“(If) there’s one drunk patron at the next business … and they see their face, now we’ve got a confrontation and the kid could be assaulted,” Elliott testified.
Or the kid could be kicked out of the bar for not being old enough to be in there. But that only helps with actual compliance with the law, not arresting people and collecting fine money.
The trooper who recruited the kids, Cynthia Alberico, saw a news report about the tweet a few days later and decided to interrogate interview Horvatinovich. Which, since this is America Land of the Handcuffs, led to his arrest on misdemeanor obstruction of government operations charges.
Cynthia Alberico testified how serious this was.
“I have never had my CIs’ identity compromised before,” Trooper Alberico testified. “I felt that it was a safety issue for them. I care about my CIs, and it’s my job to protect them.”
Earlier this week, Horvatinovich was acquitted by a jury. At the trial, he disputed he knew the kids were undercover. The prosecutors thought his tweet referring to them as a “sting” proved he knew they were acting for the police.
Maybe Horvatinovich did know this was a police operation. So what?
The real problem here is how serious police take themselves and their shenanigans. Think about the operation for a second. Two teenagers are walking into a bar and showing their teenage licenses to buy beer. They get turned down.
What did that actually accomplish? Rooting out the fancy downtown restaurants that sell beer to teenagers? Is that really that big of a problem?
While police are welcome to investigate crime, that doesn’t mean we now live in a police state. If your amateur hour undercover investigation targeting law-abiding business owners gets discovered, why does the public have to cover for your ineptitude? Why can’t those business owners get together and help each other? Maybe remind each other to double-check identification and watch out for teens drinking at the bar?
And on the same subject, if the Nebraska state police can’t run an undercover underage drinking operation without getting immediately made, maybe they are addressing the wrong problem.