Aric Butler is pictured with his wife, Andrea. Butler, a chiropractor and owner of Doc’s Gym, was arrested and charged with violating Alabama’s coronavirus health order. (Courtesy photo)
A small-town Alabama chiropractor and gym owner was arrested on a charge of violating the statewide coronavirus health order.
Dr. Aric Butler, owner of Doc’s Gym and Family Chiropractic in Rogersville, is accused of opening his gym to the public in violation of Alabama’s Safer-At-Home order, according to court records.
Butler has pleaded not guilty. His trial is scheduled for July 30 in Lauderdale County court. If convicted, he could face a fine of up to $500.
Butler’s attorney, James Irby, said the doctor didn’t break any laws.
“He resisted what we believe is an unlawful arrest by not signing the citation,” Irby said. “We think it’s bogus. I think the whole thing is unconstitutional.”
Butler was arrested on May 1 at his business on U.S. 72 in the small Lauderdale County town of Rogersville in northwest Alabama. The business includes a chiropractic office and gym, plus a smoothie bar, gift shop and classrooms.
“He didn’t open his gym,” Irby said. “He is a chiropractor and he was there seeing patients. “He was handcuffed and put in a police car and hauled off like he had committed a real crime.”
But a Facebook post on the Doc’s Gym Facebook page said the business would be open on May 1, the day of Butler’s arrest.
Police accused Butler of refusing to close the gym or sign a citation, according to public records.
A Rogersville officer drove by the business and saw 13 cars, police Chief Brian Hudson wrote in a report.
“We had been told that people were in the gym and classes were being held,” the report states.
Chief Hudson didn’t return calls from AL.com seeking comment.
So, the chief went to the business to ask Butler to close the gym and comply with the order.
The chief’s report doesn’t say people were exercising in the gym at the time, but alleges an employee was working the front desk. (Irby said the person at the desk wasn’t working, but rather was an employee’s teenage daughter.)
The police report says officers have screenshots of Facebook posts and comments in which people said they had worked out at the gym earlier that morning.
“Butler told me to write all the tickets I wanted to and he would just pay the $500 fine because that would be cheaper than staying closed,” the chief wrote in the police report.
But, according to the police report, once the chief wrote the citation and asked Butler to sign it, the doctor refused and argued that the gym had closed, despite previously admitting it was open.
“Butler stated he was staying open trying to survive and support his family,” the chief wrote in the report.
Butler is licensed by the Alabama State Board of Chiropractic Examiners, online records show. Sheila Bolton, the board’s executive director, said the board was unaware of Butler’s arrest before being contacted by AL.com.
“This is the first we’ve heard of it,” she said.
Bolton said the board would open an investigation once it received a copy of the police report. Butler could face action against his chiropractic license if an investigation determines he violated the Chiropractic Practice Act, Bolton said.
Butler told AL.com he has treated about 22,000 patients during more than 23 years of practicing in north Alabama. He first opened his practice in the nearby town of Lexington in 2005. After about 17 years there, he moved his practice to Rogersville, a town with about 1,300 residents.
In early March, Butler said he started seeing a significant decline in the number of people using the gym because of concerns about the coronavirus.
After a Stay-at-Home order was issued in mid-March, ordering the closure of gyms and many other businesses around the state, Butler and his wife, Andrea, took a steep financial hit. While they were no longer making money from the gym, they said, their mortgage, utility costs, insurance payments and equipment payments did not go away.
The Butlers declined to estimate how much revenue they lost, but Irby said the financial hit accounted for “multi-thousands of dollars.”
The Butlers said they took out a home equity loan of $150,000 to make sure they could pay their employees during the shutdown.
Because of the pending trial, Irby advised the Butlers not to discuss the criminal case in the interview with AL.com.
Irby says Butler was surprised when the police chief showed up at the business to enforce the health order.
“The interesting thing is that the very night before, the police chief and the mayor contacted him, wished him the best of luck, and told him they were all behind him,” Irby said in an interview with AL.com.
“Matter of fact the police chief offered that if people came up there and gave him a hard time or anything like that just give them a call and they would come up there and handle it.”
Neither the police chief nor Rogersville Mayor Richard Herson returned calls from AL.com seeking comment.
But in his report, Chief Hudson wrote that he began investigating Doc’s Gym on April 30 after a post on the gym’s Facebook page said it would reopen the next morning. The chief wrote in court records that he called and warned Butler not to open the gym because it would violate the health order and he could be given a citation.
“He (Butler) asked if I agreed with the order and I stated I did not completely agree with it but that did not matter because I was a sworn police officer of the state of Alabama and I would have to enforce the order,” the chief wrote. “He (Butler) stated he was going to open and whatever happened would just have to happen.”
Irby said he believed the Chief arrested Butler because the Alabama Attorney General’s Office told him to do so. A spokesman for the AG’s office denied that assertion.
“The Attorney General’s Office is not in the business of telling law enforcement how to carry out their enforcement responsibilities,” said Mike Lewis, an AG’s office spokesman, in an email to AL.com. “Those decisions are made at the local level, based on circumstances at hand, as has been repeatedly acknowledged by the Attorney General.”
Irby and Butler acknowledged the seriousness of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which prompted Alabama state health officer Scott Harris to sign the order closing gyms and other businesses. The disease has infected more than 9,000 Alabamians and killed at least 375, according to the state department of public health.
But Irby questions whether the state health order is constitutional or necessary for public safety.
“Everybody is gonna die,” he said. “We’re not gonna keep people from dying by shutting down the whole state and the nation’s economy.”
Butler said as a doctor he feels responsible for helping his patients with their physical, mental and social well-being. He said he’s seen business begin to pick back up because some patients, feeling the effects of isolation during the lock down, are sad and hurting.
“They’re giving up on their fear and needing help and hope,” Butler said.