Citizen journalist arrested for publishing information before local police
Citizen journalist Priscilla Villarreal was arrested by the Laredo Police Department and charged with two felony counts of “misuse of official information” on Dec. 13, 2017.
Villarreal — an independent journalist based in Laredo, Texas, who is often known by her nickname “La Gordiloca” — published the name of a Border Patrol agent who died by suicide on her Facebook page in April, before the Laredo Police Department’s official release about the incident.
The Laredo Morning Times reported on Dec. 15 that a veteran patrol officer, Barbara J. Goodman, provided the name of the agent to Villarreal, but the journalist denies Goodman was her source. Investigators obtained subpoenas for the phone records of both Villarreal and Goodman.
“Misuse of official information” charges in Texas require that a person obtain nonpublic information from a public official and disseminate it with the intention of benefiting or harming another entity. Authorities argued in the criminal complaint filed against Villarreal that she benefited from publishing the agent’s name by gaining Facebook followers.
Texas Monthly reported that the complaint reads, “Villarreal’s access to this information and releasing it on ‘Lagordiloca News Laredo Tx,’ before the official release by the Laredo Police Department Public Information Officer placed her ‘Facebook’ page ahead of the local official news media which in turn gained her popularity in Facebook.”
According to The Washington Post, Villarreal turned herself in voluntarily, but believes she is innocent of wrongdoing and that the police are attempting to silence her reporting.
Villarreal and her legal representation were not immediately available for comment.
A Texas state district judge dismissed the charges against Villarreal, the San Antonio Express-News reports. Judge Monica Notzon ruled that the statute under which she was charged — which criminalizes the "misuse of official information" — was unconstitutionally vague.
Isido Alaniz, the district attorney who signed off on Villarreal's arrest, said that he does not plan to appeal the judge's ruling.
On April 8, 2019, Priscilla Villarreal filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of Texas against 10 officials from the city of Laredo and Webb County, including city police officials, saying she was wrongfully arrested and that her First Amendment rights were violated. Her petition states that there was no probable cause, and the statute under which she was detained would not have been used by any “reasonable official.”
The Laredo Morning Times reported that the petition states Villarreal was surrounded by police officers and employees after her arrest who were “laughing at Villarreal, taking pictures of her in handcuffs with their cellphones, and otherwise showing their animus." Thus, Villarreal is seeking compensation for the physical, mental, emotional and financial hardship she says she suffered during the case. According to the Morning Times, “Villarreal is seeking an entry of judgment holding the defendants liable to their alleged unlawful conduct; actual, compensatory and punitive damages; injunctive relief; declaratory judgment; and attorney fees.”
In April, May and June, defendants filed separate motions for the dismissal of the case, but on Sept. 10, U.S. Federal Magistrate Judge John A. Kazen denied those motions. The case is ongoing and Villarreal claims that not only was she arrested under a “vague” law, it was also “selectively enforced” and has not been used in the past.