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Supreme Court Revives Case Claiming Councilmember's Arrest Was Politically Motivated

On Thursday, the Court sided with Sylvia Gonzalez, a former councilmember in a San Antonio suburb, who spent a night in jail after criticizing the city manager.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday revived the civil rights claim of a Texas woman who had sued her city for what she claims was a politically motivated arrest.

The ruling gives plaintiff Sylvia Gonzalez, 76, another chance to pursue her retaliation claim against the San Antonio suburb of Castle Hills. Gonzalez was arrested in 2019 for allegedly stealing a government document soon after taking office as city council member.

Gonzalez said she had mistakenly placed a paper copy of a petition — urging the city to remove its city manager — in her binder before she realized the mistake. The mayor, Edward Treviño, confronted Gonzalez about her possession of the document and alerted police.

Weeks later Gonzalez was charged with tampering with government documents, a misdemeanor. She turned herself in and was held for one night in Bexar County Jail. The charges were later dropped.

Gonzalez, the city’s first Latina council member, claimed her arrest had come as retaliation for the contents of the petition itself, which accused the city manager of failing to do his job. She then sued the city and several officials, saying they had violated her First Amendment rights.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Gonzales, saying she had not provided enough evidence to support her claim that the arrest was an act of political retribution. Judges said Gonzales should have presented evidence showing that other people who had also tampered with government documents had not been arrested.

Gonzalez’s lawyers argued that the Texas anti-tampering statutes in question had never been used to arrest someone for mistakenly stealing a document. The statutes typically applied to acts like fake social security numbers, green cards, fake checks or hiding murder evidence. The flimsiness and uniqueness of the charge, Gonzalez’s lawyer argued, was evidence that the arrest had been political retribution.

During arguments before the Supreme Court in March, justices compared Gonzalez’s arrest to jaywalking — another example of minor criminal conduct where officers “typically exercise their discretion not” to arrest.

The Supreme Court ultimately found that the lower court had indeed taken an “overly cramped” view of the key case law cited in its decision.

The case, Gonzalez v. Trevino, will now head back to lower courts for further consideration.

“This has been a nightmare for the last five years. It has kept me up at night, but finally I can sleep knowing that the nightmare I’ve gone through will protect critics from retaliation in the future," Gonzalez said in a statement.
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