Restaurant owner not guilty in flap that put Salt in hot water

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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) -- A jury has found a metro restaurant owner not guilty in a misdemeanor case involving a tweet.

The case took root with a simple tweet. Jurors were tasked with deciding whether John Horavatinovich's simple message was a violation of the law.

“I think it was a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Horvatinovich told WOWT 6 News after the verdict.

He believes the way compliance checks are done should be re-evaluated. The state, however, stands by its decision to ticket the owner.

“The point I want to drive home is this – this is how our system works. If we believe we have the evidence to charge someone with a crime, it’s our obligation to the people of Omaha to do that. And people like Mr. Horvatinovich have the right to have a trial and let the jury decide,” said Omaha City Prosecutor Matt Kuhse.

In August, a compliance check operated by the Nebraska State Patrol and Project Extra Mile stopped at Salt. Two 17-year-olds tried to buy Bud Light beer but were turned away by staff.

Horavatinovich posted their photos from the security camera on Twitter and he used the word “sting” in the post. He says he had no way to know if actually was one since the organizers don't tell restaurants before or after a check unless they are caught.

Horavatinovich said, "We were presented with two minors trying to buy alcohol at our restaurant. Had I known they were minors working with authorities in a compliance check, I would have deleted it immediately. But we didn't find that until 12-days after the tweet."

Recently-retired Nebraska State Patrol Sergeant Robert Elliott canceled the operation that night. He was first to testify Monday. He said he worried the safety of the two 17-year-olds working with investigators could be jeopardized by anyone who saw their photo on social media.

On Monday the defense team questioned the witnesses, trying to lay the framework that the restaurant owner had no way of knowing it was a compliance check. After two-and-a-half hours of testimony on Monday and a two-and-a-half hours of testimony Tuesday, it was handed over to jurors.

They adjourned Tuesday without a decision and reached their verdict Wednesday morning.

Just hours after the verdict was read Horavatinovich was back to work behind the bar at Salt.

"It feels good to be back," he told WOWT 6 News. It was his first shift in a long time where paying a hefty fine or even facing jail time were no longer on the table; just the food and drinks he was serving up.

“We were able to stand up for ourselves and other businesses,” he explained. Horavatinovich hopes that what he went through with his trial will set a precedent to protect other liquor license holders who are exercising their freedoms of speech.

When it comes to tweeting he tells us he keeps his tweets harmless and he won’t hesitate to send the next out.

“I don’t think that there’s a pause on my side. Will other people think about it? Maybe…It’ll be a thought but it’s not going to stop me from sending it out.”

Project Extra Mile Interim Executive Director Diane Riibe released a statement on the verdict Wednesday: “Compliance checks have a long history of success in Nebraska and across the country in preventing youth access to alcohol. Project Extra is thankful for law enforcement’s professionalism in carrying them out over 20 years in the metro area with a primary focus on the safety of young people. There is abundant evidence to the effectiveness of compliance checks, and we’ve seen that value as the noncompliant rate in the Omaha metro area has fallen from a high of 41% in 1997 to a current, historically low rate of 6 percent. Put simply, compliance checks work, and we’re committed to our continued support of the operations.”