SAN ANTONIO (CN) — A Texan caught on video slapping the hand of a county judge over Covid-19 face mask orders turned himself in Thursday and had his felony assault charged reduced to misdemeanor disorderly contact.
Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzalez identified the man as Terry Toller, 47. Toller was seen wearing a face mask as he left the Bexar County Jail. He was held less than three hours and was not booked in, according to county officials.
An unmasked Toller was checking out Wednesday with a cashier at a Lowe’s hardware store on Callaghan Road in northwest San Antonio when he allegedly became angry and verbally abusive when the cashier told him to wear a face mask.
In a 22-second-long security camera video that has been widely shared on social media, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is standing next to Toller waiting for another cashier and attempted to hand Toller a business card.
Toller is seen slapping Wolff’s hand and the video ends with Wolff bending down to pick up the card from the ground. The two Lowe’s employees in the video, Wolff and a third customer in line are all shown wearing masks. Wolff claimed he was trying to calm the situation and get Toller to call his office to discuss the order.
Wolff was the first local official in Texas to order businesses to require face masks in areas where 6-foot social distancing is not possible or face a $1,000 fine. Enacted on June 17, the order has been copied by other jurisdictions in the state that have struggled to find a way around Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s refusal to order people to wear face masks in public.
County judges in Texas are elected chief executives of the county — they have no judicial duties.
Gonzalez declined to comment on the specifics of the case against Toller, but said his office reduced — at Judge Wolff’s request — the felony charge of assault on a public servant to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly contact for using profanity in a public place.
“At the request of Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, that charge was rejected at magistration by the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “Wearing a face covering is a sign of respect to the people around you. While this issue has become divisive and political, it is my hope that everyone will follow the order voluntarily.”
Wolff said he asked for the reduced charge because he “did not want this to be a distraction” from the main goal of “requiring businesses to have customers wear masks” and to protect everyone in the community.
“We are experiencing a drastic rise in cases and hospitalizations and it is my understanding that those numbers will go up exponentially today,” the judge said in a statement Thursday.
Texas has so far reported 131,917 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 2,296 deaths, according to the Department of State Health Services late Thursday.
Toller’s attorney — Nico LaHood in San Antonio — praised the reduction of the charge to a misdemeanor. He deemed the original felony charge “overreaching from the beginning.” He criticized Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar for “way overreacting” to the incident.
Salazar said Wednesday that Wolff called him immediately after the slap and left the phone on speakerphone as the confrontation continued.
“I could hear the suspect berating the judge,” Salazar said at the time. “He knew exactly who he was; he knew exactly who he was dealing with, and he knew that he was in violation of the judge’s order.”
LaHood says his client maintains he did nothing wrong.
“The video speaks for itself,” the attorney said. “There are other aspects that happened in the incident that people are not getting. This was taken way out of context. At the very least, it was mishandled very irresponsibly. At the worst, it was deceptive. I don’t know, we will have to fill in the blanks as time goes on.”
Toller’s release from jail came hours after Tarrant County officials in Fort Worth issued a nearly identical order to businesses to mandate masks for employees and customers or face a $1,000 fine.