U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Police subpoena journalist's cellphone during leak investigation

Incident Details

Date of Incident
July 27, 2017
Laredo, Texas
Case number
Case Status
Type of case

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Third-party: AT&T (telecom company)
Legal Order Venue
July 27, 2017

Police in Laredo, Texas, subpoenaed the phone records of independent journalist Priscilla Villarreal on July 27, 2017, in an attempt to identify a confidential source, according to filings reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. After her phone carrier turned over the requested information, three additional subpoenas were issued seeking more of her communication records.

Villarreal — known by her pen name “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 LPD opened an investigation to identify who leaked Villarreal the name.

According to an arrest warrant approval form, an LPD officer obtained search warrants for call log records from the cellphones of Villarreal and her suspected source. The form states that the officer faxed the subpoenas on July 27 and AT&T provided the requested records several weeks later. Additional subpoenas for call logs and text messages from Villarreal’s phone number were filed on Sept. 14, Sept. 28 and Oct. 6.

Villarreal was arrested in December and charged with two third-degree felonies for “misuse of official information.” An attorney representing Villarreal filed a writ of habeas corpus challenging the constitutionality of the charges in February 2018.

“Today, in the State of Texas, it is illegal to simply ask a public servant for information if the information sought happens to be described in an obscure list of information categories that are subject to discretionary disclosure — rather than mandatory,” attorney Oscar Peña wrote. “The only thing keeping journalists from being prosecuted for this every day is the mercy of the police, the prosecutors and the political cost attendant. This too is alarming.”

A Texas state judge ruled in favor of Villarreal in March 2018 and dismissed the charges, finding that the statute the journalist was charged under was unconstitutionally vague.

In April 2019, Villarreal filed a civil lawsuit against the city of Laredo, Webb County and 10 law enforcement officials. The case was initially dismissed by a U.S. magistrate judge in May 2020, but a federal court of appeals reversed the decision in November 2021.

In August 2022, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a substitute decision with the addition of a dissenting opinion from Chief Judge Priscilla Richman and a concurring opinion from Judge James C. Ho.

JT Morris, a senior attorney at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression who is representing Villarreal’s appeal, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the appellate court decided to rehear the case “en banc,” meaning that the entire bench of active judges for the court reheard the case.

Arguments before the judges were held in January 2023, Morris said, and the court’s ruling is now pending.

Editor’s Note: This article has been rewritten to include new information from court filings clarifying the timeline of the subpoena and Priscilla Villarreal’s subsequent lawsuit.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].