BANGOR, Maine — An Appleton man was found guilty Wednesday afternoon of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct during the Land Use Regulation Commission’s hearing last year on the Plum Creek development plan.
Christian “Will” Neils, 33, was fined $400 for the offenses. With surcharges, Neils was ordered to pay the court $500.
Neils also was found not guilty of carrying a concealed weapon that could be considered dangerous, a knife.
The jury of eight men and four women deliberated for 4½ hours before delivering its verdict after 1½ days of testimony at the Penobscot Judicial Center.
“I stand by a verdict by my peers,” Neils said after the verdict was announced and he was sentenced.
The trial began Monday, but was continued until Wednesday because of the dedication of the new courthouse on Tuesday.
Neils was arrested on Sept. 23 last year at the Ramada Inn in Bangor during the final Land Use Regulation Commission’s hearing on the Plum Creek development plan. He told a Penobscot County jury Wednesday morning that he did not try to keep police from doing their jobs, resist arrest or have a concealed weapon in his pocket.
The incident was recorded by two Bangor television stations and one of the Plum Creek opponents. All three were shown to jurors during the course of the trial.
He faced up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $2,000 on the concealed weapon charge and up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 on the disorderly conduct charge.
Michael Roberts, deputy district attorney for Penobscot County who prosecuted the case, recommended Superior Court Justice William Anderson impose a fine but not jail time.
When Anderson imposed the fines, supporters of the defendant, including Rep. Benjamin Marriner Pratt, D-Eddington, opened their wallets and gave money to Neils to pay his fines and surcharges. The 15 or so people collected more than $400 for Neils.
“I had no expectation of that,” Neils said of the collection as he left the courthouse. “I have been arrested nine times in different parts of the country and have never received this kind of community support.”
He has until June 25 to pay the remainder of the fine.
Before Anderson adjourned, Neils thanked the judge for the manner in which he had conducted the trial.
“I appreciate the way you shepherded this through,” the defendant said.
As he left the courthouse, Roberts praised the jury for its work and said he was pleased with the outcome.
“The jury obviously worked very hard,” he said. “I believe they made the right decision for those who were at the meeting. I’m particularly grateful on behalf of law enforcement. They were just there doing their jobs.”
Defense attorney Leonard Sharon of Auburn said he did not expect to appeal the jury’s verdict to Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
He said one of the difficult things about the case was proving that the loud and vulgar language Neils used as Bangor police removed him from the hearing room was protected speech under the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Sharon also said the resisting arrest statute was so broad that anything a person might do to prevent being taken into custody could be construed as refusing to submit to arrest or detention.
Neils took the stand in his own defense Wednesday morning. He told the jury that he had been acting as a police liaison for the protesters at the meeting. He testified that he approached officers as the protest began to introduce himself and explain his role.
“I was in front of [Bangor police Lt. Thomas Reagan] attempting to communicate with him,” Neils told the jury. “I put my hands up so he could see them. When he told me to put them down, I did.”
Reagan testified Monday that Neils put his hands up in front of the policeman’s chest to prevent him from removing a protester from the room.
Neils also told the jury that because the police would not respond to his question, “Am I under arrest?” and because they were holding his arm behind his back in a painful position, he was not allowing them to handcuff him easily.
In their closing arguments, both Roberts and Sharon, showed portions of the protest and Neils’ arrest.
“The protesters went there with a plan but both sides didn’t know the rules,” Roberts said in his closing argument. “It was as if two sides came on to the field but one team came to play football and the other team showed up with baseball bats.
“None of this would have happened if Mr. Neils had approached the officers before hand,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t make sense for him to do that once the protest had started.”
Neils testified that strategically, it was not a good idea to give police advance notice of when and how a protest will proceed.
Sharon told jurors in his closing that Bangor police gave his client the “bum’s rush” when they removed him from the room. The attorney admitted that his client had been loud and shouted vulgarities once police began removing him from the hearing room.
“He was saying the right thing in the wrong way,” the defense attorney said. “Forgive him for that, but don’t convict him.”
Sharon also told the jury that the knife Neils had on him did not fit the description of a dangerous knife under the statute and that it was simply a folding knife that he had used earlier in the day while working at the family woodlot.
Sharon described the events as the protest began as a “play that went bad.” He also told jurors that Bangor police had met before the meeting with employees of Plum Creek’s security firm. At that meeting, Sharon said, the names of people known to be vocal opponents of Plum Creek’s plan were given to Bangor police.
Neils was one of six protesters arrested on Sept. 23.
Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy announced on April 30 in a press release that charges of criminal trespass and disorderly conduct had been dismissed against Jessica Dowling, 28, of Searsmont; Megan Gilmartin, 26, of Corinth; James Freeman, 61, of Verona Island; Emily Posner, 28, of Montville; and Ryan Clarke, 28, of East Corinth. A criminal trespass charge filed against Neils also was dropped.
All of those arrested attended the trial in support of Neils. None was called as a witness.