A Janesville man who followed Janesville police officers with a camera, insults and profanities during summer 2018 was found guilty of disorderly conduct in Rock County Court on Monday.
But a jury decided Aaron M. Oleston, 39, of 3053 Palmer Drive No. 17, Janesville, was not guilty of obstructing an officer at the time of his arrest.
Oleston claimed he was exercising his free-speech rights, although that was not an issue during his trial Monday in Rock County Court.
Judge John Wood had ruled earlier that the case could not be dismissed on First Amendment grounds.
A state appeals court rejected Oleston’s appeal of that ruling.
Oleston also said he was challenging police because he was upset at how police treat homeless and mentally ill people, although he wasn’t allowed to say much about his thoughts on that subject when he testified in the one-day trial Monday.
Assistant District Attorney Jerry Urbik successfully objected to questions on those topics, saying they were not relevant.
When asked why he used vulgar language, Oleston said police “harass” and “use” the homeless people who were hanging out in Fireman’s Park, adding, “That’s what terrorists do.”
Defense attorney Jim Fitzgerald said Oleston saw his daily bicycle rides to the police department with cameras as his civic duty.
Oleston regularly posted his videos with often vulgar commentary criticizing police on his YouTube channel, Nomad Transparency.
Oleston also was concerned about the use of tax dollars, which is one of the reasons he videotaped a City Hall renovation project and objected to a squad car being left running for a lengthy period, his lawyers said.
Oleston was charged with five counts of disorderly conduct and one count of obstructing an officer for incidents outside the Janesville Police Department on Aug. 13 and Aug. 15, 2018.
He had been videotaping police doing their jobs previously, but the incidents in question involved police officers who were leaving or entering the building at shift change, wearing civilian clothing.
What Oleston did was largely indisputable—he captured it on video, and it was recorded on the body camera of the officer who arrested him.
He called out to them using sexually vulgar language, asked some if they were going home to beat their wives and accused others of being “Nazis,” terrorists and of working for “Blue ISIS.”
He narrated one video, saying, “Today we’re going to test my First Amendment right, freedom of expression, by flipping off every f——— cop that comes out of this sally port, see if they respect my right to flip pigs off.”
In another instance, he notices an officer’s personal vehicle is missing a front license plate, and he asks other officers what they’re going to do about it.
Officer Erin Betley, who assisted in Oleston’s arrest, said that during booking, Oleston made a sexually suggestive comment.
Betley said the remark disturbed her, and she found it rude.
Other officers who testified also said Oleston’s comments disturbed them, but they didn’t react to them.
Oleston was charged with obstructing for his behavior when he was arrested. Urbik said Oleston did not respond to an officer’s repeated commands that he drop his camera, and the officer had to take it from him.
Oleston testified he didn’t want to damage his expensive camera, and the video did not show a struggle. It did show Oleston cooperating as officers handcuffed him.
Officer Jeremy Wiley testified that when he grabbed the camera, Oleston let go.
Under cross-examination, Oleston denied Urbik’s assertion that he hates police. Only bad police, he said.
Urbik then produced a caricature—over the objections from the defense that it was prejudicial—that Oleston had posted online showing a pig dressed as a police officer with a death’s-head figure inserting a gun into the pig’s mouth.
Urbik urged the jury in his final arguments to consider whether Oleston’s behavior—bullying, harassing and intimidating the officers—would be acceptable if instead of police the victims were employees of a bank, school or factory.
The officers—like other citizens—have a right not to be subjected to such treatment while off duty, Urbik said.
While the jury was not in the courtroom, Wood remarked that disorderly conduct is not easy to understand.
When jurors returned, he told them that being disorderly means saying words or conduct that tend to cause or promote a disturbance, but no actual disruption is required.
Urbik had argued that members of the public could have seen and heard Oleston’s interactions with police because the area is home to apartments and businesses, but no evidence was presented that anyone but Oleston and police were there.
Urbik noted the police officers had changed their walking route when leaving the police department so they could avoid Oleston.
Wood also said that words that are only a “personal annoyance” are not disorderly conduct.
“He wanted to provoke a disturbance,” Urbik said in his final arguments. “He wanted to get them enraged so he could get it on video so he could say, ‘See how terrible officers of the Janesville Police Department are ...”
Police officers have the same right as anyone else “not to be confronted by people shouting profane insults at them and having a camera shoved in their faces,” Urbik said.
Fitzgerald said Oleston “could have chosen his words a little bit better, but that does not mean he committed a crime, let alone six crimes.”
The jury deliberated for one hour and 45 minutes before reaching its verdict.
Sentencing is set for Dec. 11.
Still undecided is a related case in which Oleston is accused of violating the terms of his bond by videotaping a Janesville police officer at the Rock County Courthouse. He had been ordered not to come within 1,000 feet of a Janesville officer unless reporting a crime. That order remains in effect.
Oleston recorded his walk into the courthouse Monday morning, titling the video “12 Jurors 1 Judge Half A Chance.”
In the video, he criticizes the new security checkpoint as a waste of money and a way to intimidate people.