New Mexico reporter settles lawsuit against sheriff, Sheriff’s Office
Reporter Tabitha Clay settled her lawsuit against the Rio Arriba County sheriff and the Sheriff’s Office on April 19, 2022, and the case was formally dismissed on May 4.
Filed by the ACLU of New Mexico on Clay’s behalf in May 2021, the lawsuit concerned a series of alleged civil rights violations in retaliation for her reporting on the Sheriff’s Office in the summer of 2019.
Clay told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that as the case advanced, she was surprised by how invasive the process was: Through the course of discovery, Clay said, she had to turn over hospital records from when she was a teen, documentation from her two marriages and much more.
When a settlement agreement was available, Clay told the Tracker, she decided to take it because the primary concerns and aims of the suit were addressed.
“We looked at the situation and said, ‘OK, the main problem here was the leadership in that office, that’s why this was allowed to go on,’” Clay said.
The sheriff named in the suit, James Lujan, was convicted on unrelated charges and sentenced to three years in prison in December 2021, vacating the post. The current sheriff has also restored a policy on disclosing dispatch logs and what information is contained in them, which Clay’s suit alleges were restricted after her reporting.
According to the settlement, reviewed by the Tracker, Rio Arriba County agreed to pay her $65,000 in exchange for Clay dropping her claims against all the parties involved.
Clay told the Tracker that she worries about whether it will actually serve as a deterrent to others in the department in part because the settlement goes through the insurance company in New Mexico.
“I wish when people filed these civil suits against law enforcement that it came out of the actual police budget because I think that would make a bigger impact on future actions,” Clay said.
A reporter for a weekly newspaper based in Española, New Mexico, filed a lawsuit against the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff James Lujan for alleged civil rights violations in retaliation for her reporting on the law enforcement agency in the summer of 2019.
On May 29, 2019, former Rio Grande Sun reporter Tabitha Clay published a piece about former Deputy Jeremy Barnes tasing a student multiple times in the chest, the outlet reported. Clay told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker the piece garnered national attention, which is when the sheriff’s office began retaliating against her.
“Initially I had a great relationship with the Sheriff’s department until I wrote things that they didn’t like,” Clay said. “When the story got picked up in national news and the sheriff’s office got calls from across the country asking what was wrong with them, they got pretty upset with me for that. The sheriff basically said, ‘Look what you did, look what you caused.’”
According to a suit filed by the ACLU of New Mexico on Clay’s behalf: In June, Lujan directed department employees to stop providing records or comment to Clay. In July, Lujan told Barnes to order Clay to leave the scene of a car wreck and arrest her if she didn’t. In September, two department vehicles were parked outside of her apartment building in Santa Fe County in an apparent attempt to intimidate her, and deputies refused to allow her into the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla with her reporting materials, including her laptop and camera.
Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Lorenzo Aguilar did not respond to multiple calls requesting comment.
“The Sheriff and his minions responded with frightening efforts to silence Ms. Clay, through obstruction and even intimidation. This case arises from those efforts and strikes at the very core of the First Amendment and our freedoms,” the suit says.
The suit also stipulated that as Clay continued to report on the “questionable conduct” of the sheriff’s office, the department changed its official policies on disclosing dispatch logs and what information is contained in them.
“These changes included dispatch logs that had been provided to the Rio Grande SUN every morning for approximately ten years and which had contained significant information related to RASO activities,” the suit alleges. “Following Ms. Clay’s reporting, Defendant Lujan pushed through policy changes to delay providing dispatch logs until after two weeks, and limiting the information provided in the dispatch logs.”
According to the SUN, the truncated logs were the subject of a separate legal fight between the newspaper and the New Mexico Department of Public Safety; the state settled and implemented a new records policy in October 2019.
The ACLU filed a tort claim notice — the first step in suing the department — in 2019, and filed a formal suit on May 26, 2021.
The suit seeks punitive damages from the Board of County Commissioners for Rio Arriba County, the sheriff’s office, Lujan and Barnes “in connection with their retaliation and intimidation arising from the exercise of [Clay’s] constitutionally protected First Amendment Rights.”
“I ended up leaving my job at the SUN because of this,” Clay told the Tracker. “It was a lot going on, and it didn’t really occur to me how much trauma it caused until we went back through it and did interviews for the brief. This was a lot. This was really scary stuff.”