Supremes allow lawsuit over ‘retaliatory’ arrest to continue

By Bob Unruh

The Supreme Court has ruled that a Texas woman who was on a small town council but quit when she was arrested for what she charges were political motives can sue.

The decision came in a case brought by Sylvia Gonzalez against officials in the town of Castle Hills.

The ruling means that the case will return to the lower courts where judges will have to make several decisions regarding the evidence.

The summary from the Supreme Court said:

In 2019, Sylvia Gonzalez ran for a seat on the city council of Castle Hills, a small town in southern Texas. While she was on the campaign trail, Gonzalez heard multiple complaints about the city manager, Ryan Rapelye. As city manager, Rapelye was responsible for, among other things, enforcing the city’s laws and managing its budget. Gonzalez was elected in May 2019. Her first act in office was to help gather signatures for a petition seeking Rapelye’s removal. Eventually, over 300 residents signed the petition. The petition was introduced at the next city council meeting, where discussions grew heated after various residents rose to Rapelye’s defense and spoke against Gonzalez. The discussion over the petition continued the next day. At the end of the second day, Gonzalez was packing up her belongings when the mayor, Edward Trevino, asked her for the petition. Gonzalez indicated that the petition was in Trevino’s possession, which he denied. He then asked Gonzalez to check her binder, where she found the petition. Gonzalez claims that she “did not intentionally put the petition in her binder,” and that she was “surprise[d]” to find it there. Trevino brought this incident to the city police’s attention, and an investigation into these events soon began. Within a month, a private attorney tasked with leading the investigation concluded that Gonzalez had likely violated a Texas anti-tampering statute that, among other things, prohibits a person from intentionally “remov[ing] . . . a governmental record.” On the private attorney’s request, a local Magistrate granted a warrant for Gonzalez’s arrest. When she heard the news, Gonzalez turned herself in and spent an evening in jail. The district attorney ultimately dismissed the charges. Gonzalez claims that this episode has convinced her to step away from political life.

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The opinion was unsigned but there were several concurrences. Justice Clarence Thomas submitted the only dissent, pointing out that such cases should not be allowed to continue when there exists probable cause for an arrest, which he said existed in the case.

He said Gonzalez’ claim rested on “another common-law analogue for a retaliatory arrest claim: abuse of process,” which he suggested shouldn’t apply.

A report from WPBF said, “Though it was a local political dispute, the case nevertheless presented an important First Amendment question for the Supreme Court: When may people sue government officials for First Amendment retaliation claims – and when are those suits barred by a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity that shields those officials from certain suits?”

The report explained, “Normally, a person alleging retaliatory arrest must demonstrate police had not proven probable cause. But there is an exception: Police are not shielded from such lawsuits if officers often exercise discretion not to arrest – say, for petty crimes like jaywalking. But unlike jaywalking, taking government documents during a city council meeting is a rare occurrence. Gonzalez’s attorneys said there is no way to demonstrate that police had let slide similar infractions involving others – since there were none.”

After the charges were dropped, she sued, claiming retaliation in violation of the First Amendment.

A district court denied qualified immunity to the officers so that her case could continue. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that, based on probable cause.

The case now will return to the 5th Circuit.

An analysis when the case was argued noted that the requirement she point to a like situation where an arrest was not made was a hurdle, as such a situation didn’t exist.

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