Fifth Circuit Gives Qualified Immunity to City Officials After Free Speech Retaliation Arrest of Councilwoman

On July 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit released a published opinion in the case of Sylvia Gonzalez v. Edward Trevino, Mayor of Castle Hills that now appears to be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is an important First Amendment Retaliation case where qualified immunity is the key issue. Qualified immunity is the most important issue in the fight for the civil rights of the American people. It must be defeated, which is why you need to learn about cases like this, which the media will never tell you about.

Here’s the opinion:

The case is being litigated by the Institute for Justice. They filed suit for the plaintiff, Sylvia Gonzalez, a retired resident of Castle Hills, Texas, who decided to run for city council, and became the first Hispanic councilwoman in Castle Hills history. I spoke with the Institute of Justice attorneys litigating this case on the same day the opinion was released, and they seemed very optimistic about the future of this case at the Supreme Court. 

At Ms. Gonzalez’s first council meeting, she accidentally took home with her petition which had been debated at the meeting. It was laying in her stack of paperwork. It was later discovered that the petition was in her possession, which as it turns out, was technically a misdemeanor crime. The petition sought to remove the city manager. This town has fewer than 5,000 residents. During her campaign, Gonzalez learned that many residents were unhappy with the performance of the city manager. As her first act in office, she submitted this petition to the council. It was entirely unintentional that she ended up taking the petition home with her. She was supporting this petition and had no reason to suppress it or hide it. It was purely unintentional, and it was her first meeting as a councilwoman. 

Well, the city leadership was unhappy with Sylvia Gonzalez. After the mistake was discovered, the mayor, Edward Trevino, requested that a Sergeant in the Castle Hills Police Department file a criminal complaint alleging that Gonzalez took the petition without consent. The first officer to investigate, a Sergeant, determined that no crime had been committed. Well, that was unacceptable to the mayor and the chief, so they turned to a so-called “special detective.” The detective decided that Sylvia committed a violation of Texas Penal Code §§ 37.10(a)(3) and (c)(1), which provide that “[a] person commits an offense if he . . . intentionally destroys, conceals, removes, or otherwise impairs the verity, legibility, or availability of a governmental record.” 

Special Detective Alex Wright obtained a warrant, and instead of using the typical procedure of obtaining a summons, rather than a warrant, for a nonviolent crime, as well as going through the district attorney’s office, the detective instead obtained a warrant and hand-delivered it to the magistrate himself. The use of this process prevented Sylvia from using the satellite booking function of the Bexar County Jail system, making her unable to avoid spending time in jail when arrested. 

There is clear evidence here that this was done with a retaliatory motive, in response to Sylvia Gonzalez’s support of the petition to remove the city manager and disturb their swamp status quo. Sylvia’s arrest enabled the city leadership to remove her from office, as well as to intimidate, punish, and silence her. There was plenty evidence of this. In fact, Sylvia was charged under a statute that has never before or since been used to arrest someone in her position. A “review of the misdemeanor and felony data from Bexar County over the past decade makes it clear that the misdemeanor tampering statute has never been used in Bexar County to criminally charge someone for trying to steal a nonbinding or expressive document.” Indeed, most indictments under the statute involved fake government IDs, such as driver’s licenses, social security numbers, and green cards. 

But here was the big problem: technically there was probable cause to charge her under the statute that was charged. So the question is, can law enforcement arrest and prosecute Sylvia in retaliation for her protected free speech, so long as probable cause exists to do so? In other words, this is like a mayor ordering the arrest of a political opponent for some minor crime like jaywalking, where technically the crime was committed, but where there never would have been any prosecution at all, but for retaliation against free speech. This is the dispute, and there is a split in the federal circuits. 

In the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case of Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, 138 S. Ct. 1945, 1954 (2018), the Court held that a municipality could be liable under a Monell Claim where its leadership decides to selectively prosecute a particular person in retaliation for their speech. The federal circuits have differed on how broadly to interpret this holding. The Fifth Circuit, in last week’s opinion, has chosen a narrow interpretation. 

The jaywalking example is the ideal example, which was discussed in the opinion:

“If an individual who has been vocally complaining about police conduct is arrested for jaywalking,” the claim should not be dismissed despite the existence of probable cause because “[i]n such a case, . . . probable cause does little to prove or disprove the causal connection between animus and injury.” 

 The Court “conclude[d] that the no-probable-cause requirement should not apply when a plaintiff presents objective evidence that he was arrested when otherwise similarly situated individuals not engaged in the same sort of protected speech had not been.” 

Basically, their conclusion was that since no prior council-person had been prosecuted by the city for taking a petition home with them, then there was no evidence to support a theory of retaliatory selective prosecution. This is of course, absurd. This is like saying that law enforcement may engage in retaliatory prosecutions, so long as they choose a creative statute that has never been used before against the same type of defendant. 

The fact is, that Sylvia Gonzalez engaged in highly protected First Amendment conduct, and that as a result of that conduct, a conspiracy of government officials took a material adverse action against her for purposes of retaliation. This is already prohibited under federal law. As the dissenting federal judge noted in his dissent, the police officers and city leadership have been on notice of a string of legal authority, dating all the way back to 1689, that it’s unconstitutional to jail people in response to their petitioning the government.

Hopefully the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn this. The Institute of Justice is doing some great work, not just in this case, but in many different cases across the country. They are likely even jumping into one of my cases, so stay tuned for that. Check out the youtube video the Institute did on the Gonzalez case, back when they first started. There’s a donation link. They need donations now, more than ever. Please donate, if you want to help fund the fight against qualified immunity and government corruption. Here’s the Institute’s video on the case, with donation link:

Here’s the district court order, which originally denied qualified immunity, and which the defendants appealed to the Fifth Circuit:

And here’s the IJ’s response brief to the motion asserting qualified immunity to the district court, which is fantastic:

“Hammered” Drunk Police Chief Gets Ride Home and a “Talk” Instead of DUI

Hazelwood, Missouri Police Chief Greg Hall, who had been with his department for 43 years, and who was chair of the St. Louis Area Police Chief’s Association in 2019, was pulled over by another police agency on May 28 for a traffic stop. He was “hammered drunk.” Was he carted off to the jail like you or I would have been? No. He was personally driven home by the police chief of that agency instead. But don’t worry, the colleague police chief promised that, “he and I are going to have a long talk on the way home.” By the way, Chief Hall made $118,000.00 last year. A few days after the traffic stop, he retired. As of an investigative report by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch yesterday, July 14, they confirmed that Chief Hall had not even been charged as of yet. Remember, the stop was on May 28.

O’Fallon Police Department Officer Nathan Dye initiates a traffic stop on a vehicle he later describes as “dodging sniper fire,” referring to excessive weaving on the road. The driver, almost from the very beginning, identifies himself as a the chief of police in Hazelwood. Obviously aware that the body cam is rolling, Officer Dye apologetically initiates field sobriety tests. Chief Hall fails them. Next is the breathalyzer, which results in the chief blowing more than 2 and a half times the legal limit.

Officer Dye’s supervisor arrives. He’s brought up to speed on what’s happened. His first question is whether the stop had been recorded on body cam. The supervisor then expresses disappointment that Officer Dye was recording. “Yeah this is a tough day and age, man, you know, when you have, uh, they insist on all these electronic things and technology,” the sergeant says.

Then O’Fallon Police Department Chief Neske arrives, after being contacted off-camera by Officer Dye and his supervisor. The camera was turned off just before Chief Neske arrived. But another video showed what happened. 

So what happened here, is that some animals are more equal than others. This is government corruption. Never forget that police officers are first and foremost, government employees. Agents of your government. They will protect each other. They will utilize protections they have built into the system. However, they will not extend any of those protections to you, the peasant. The only way to root out this cancerous corruption is through public exposure – through video footage and media exposure. Then to a lesser extent, through lawsuits and rare criminal prosecutions. There’s also politics. But that has consistently failed us, and indeed created this problem in the first place. 

We saw this illustrated in this video footage. The younger officer, Officer Dye, who made the traffic stop, obviously wants to do the right thing and is making an effort to do the right thing. But look what he’s dealing with. His supervisor, who has clearly been around the block a few times, knows exactly what he’s doing. Question number one: is there video footage. If you wondering whether justice is served by recording as much video footage as possible of our police officers, there’s your answer. It absolutely is. It keeps them honest, when they wouldn’t otherwise be. That’s your government that wants to sneak around and lie to you. But they can’t when they’re caught on video, as here. Then, as if to one-up the wily-old supervisor, the chief himself shows up to the scene, and just bypasses the middleman. He takes the suspect straight out of detainment, and takes him home. But don’t worry…. He’s going to give him a stern talking-to on the way home. 

Is this new? No, it’s been happening since the days of Julius Caesar. Government is going to government. That’s what it does. The trick is establishing accountability through public exposure.

Remember, in every interaction between a citizen and a police officer, don’t forget that it’s really an interaction between a citizen and his government. Never forget that, and you won’t have to learn that lesson the hard way.

Investigative Report by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and link to full video.