U.S. Supreme Court

5th Circuit took 'overly cramped view' of precedent in retaliatory arrest suit, Supreme Court says

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Sylvia Gonzalez, a resident of Castle Hills, Texas, spoke out against her city government and was arrested for it. Photo from the Institute for Justice's Oct. 13, 2023, press release.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday for a former city council member who claims that her arrest for placing her citizen petition into a binder stemmed from a retaliatory political vendetta.

The Supreme Court ruled for Sylvia Gonzalez, who sued Castle Hills, Texas, officials after she was accused of stealing the petition from the mayor before a city council meeting got underway.

Gonzalez’s petition had sought the ouster of the city manager. Her lawsuit alleged retaliation for activity protected by the First Amendment.

A federal appeals court that ruled against Gonzalez “took an overly cramped view” of precedent, the Supreme Court said in its June 20 per curiam opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.

The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm, had represented Gonzalez.

“This is a great day for the First Amendment and Sylvia Gonzalez, who has courageously fought against retaliatory actions by government officials,” said Anya Bidwell, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, in a statement. “The Supreme Court’s revision of its First Amendment retaliation doctrine ensures that Americans can seek justice when they have evidence of a retaliatory arrest.”

Gonzalez was charged with tampering with a governmental record. Gonzalez had claimed that she didn’t intentionally put the document in her binder.

The district attorney later dismissed the charges but not before Gonzalez spent a night in jail. She said she gave up politics because of the incident.

The incident happned during a contentious city council meeting in which residents spoke on behalf of the city manager and, in some cases, accused Gonzalez of misleading people in soliciting their petition signatures, according to a concurrence by Justice Samuel Alito.

Surveillance video showed Gonzalez taking the petition from the dais before the meeting began, according to Alito’s account. She flipped through the pages and put the petition in her binder. When the mayor was unable to find the petition after the meeting, he asked a police officer to check with Gonzalez because she appeared to have a familiar binder-clipped stack of papers in her possession.

Gonzalez denied having the petition, Alito said. When she found it, Gonzalez said it was a copy.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New Orleans had tossed Gonzalez’s suit, holding that the mayor and police chief were protected by qualified immunity because there was probable cause for the arrest and an exception didn’t apply.

At issue was whether the government officials are protected under the Supreme Court’s 2019 qualified immunity decision in Nieves v. Bartlett. In that case, the Supreme Court held that an officer who has probable cause to make an arrest may still be liable for First Amendment retaliation if officers typically exercise their discretion not to make arrests in such circumstances.

Arguing that she fit within the exception, Gonzalez presented evidence that in the past decade, no one had been charged under the tampering law in her county for trying to steal a nonbinding document. The typical indictment was for making fake government IDs. Other charges were for creating fake checks, hiding murder evidence or cheating on government exams.

The 5th Circuit said Gonzalez had to present examples of people who “mishandled a government petition” yet were not arrested. That was too strict, the Supreme Court said.

“Although the Nieves exception is slim,” the Supreme Court said, “the demand for virtually identical and identifiable comparators goes too far.”

“Gonzalez’s survey is a permissible type of evidence because the fact that no one has ever been arrested for engaging in a certain kind of conduct—especially when the criminal prohibition is long-standing and the conduct at issue is not novel—makes it more likely that an officer has declined to arrest someone for engaging in such conduct in the past,” the Supreme Court said.

The case is Gonzalez v. Trevino.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

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