Supreme Court to hear case of Texas councilwoman who says her arrest was politically motivated

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From the Institute of Justice

Sylvia González, a 76-year-old retiree and resident of Castle Hills, Texas, who was arrested as punishment for criticizing the administration and city officials.


Sylvia González barely arrived at her second meeting as a new city council member in her small Texas community when a police officer tapped her on the shoulder in what she considered “a negative way.”

González, then 72 years old, would eventually be arrested for stealing a government document at the meeting, an allegation that arose from what she said was an inadvertent shuffling of papers and what city officials said may have been motivated by a cover-up.

Out of this small-town political dispute, an important First Amendment question has been queued up for the Supreme Court on Wednesday: When can people sue government officials over First Amendment retaliation claims, and when can those Are lawsuits barred by a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity? What protects those officials from certain lawsuits?

The court’s decision, according to González’s lawyer, could have surprising consequences if it gives city officials more freedom to arrest critics.
The attorney representing JR Trevino, the mayor of Castle Hills, Texas, calls those concerns overblown and noted that police obtained an arrest warrant from a judge.

“He had a clean record. She didn’t even have a parking ticket,” González said, recalling that she was handcuffed. “I was surprised that there was a warrant for my arrest.”

Gonzalez, who ended up spending a day in jail, ran for council in part on a promise to mount a campaign against the current city manager, his lawyers say. Shortly after taking the oath, he organized a citizen petition urging the official’s dismissal. It was that request that Gonzalez says he mistakenly put in his folder during the meeting.

But Treviño’s lawyers said González did so after residents at the meeting accused her of misleading them about the nature of the request. A resident accused Gonzalez of urging him to forge her parents’ signatures, according to court records.

Police found probable cause to believe that González violated the law, Treviño’s lawyers told the Supreme Court, and that she was “apparently motivated by a desire to avoid residents’ accusations that she had solicited petition signatures.” deceptively.”

Prosecutors eventually dropped charges against Gonzalez. She filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging retaliation in violation of the First Amendment, saying city officials devised a plan to arrest her and remove her from office.

A district court denied qualified immunity to the officers, allowing the case to proceed, but González lost at trial. US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuitwho maintained there was probable cause to arrest her and “necessarily dismissed” her retaliatory arrest claim.

Normally, a person alleging a retaliatory arrest must show that the police have not shown probable cause. But there is one exception: Police are not protected from such lawsuits if officers often exercise their discretion not to arrest, for example, for minor offenses like jaywalking.

But unlike jaywalking, taking government documents during a city council meeting is rare. Gonzalez’s attorneys said there is no way to prove that police had missed similar violations involving others, since there were none.

If the high court adopts that rule, his lawyers say, it would give the green light to government officials to arrest his critics under suspicious circumstances.

“Basically, it would be very easy to come up with an excuse to put someone behind bars and scare not only them but also people in the future who don’t want to be in the same situation,” said Anya Bidwell, an attorney. at the Institute of Justice who will defend González.

Treviño’s attorney emphasized that police obtained a warrant that was reviewed by a judge who “found probable cause based on a warrant request that detailed witness statements and security footage capturing the robbery.”

The lawyer, veteran Supreme Court litigator Lisa Blatt, dismissed the idea that a ruling in the mayor’s favor would lead to an increase in political arrests.

“The United States – home of judicial order, due process and impartial courts – has never been a police state,” he told the Supreme Court.

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