Texas councilwoman can sue over arrest she claims was politically motivated, Supreme Court rules

The Supreme Court on Thursday allowed a Texas woman who served on a small-town council to continue her lawsuit against her mayor after she was arrested for what she claims were political reasons.

In an unsigned opinion, the high court said a federal appeals court took an “overly cramped view” of an earlier precedent that control when people may sue for First Amendment retaliation claims. Justice Clarence Thomas authored the only public dissent.

Sylvia Gonzalez was arrested in 2019 shortly after she took her seat as a council member in Castle Hills, Texas, following a campaign in which she heavily criticized the city manager.

Gonzalez, then 72, was arrested for stealing a government document at a council meeting – a charge that stemmed from what she said was an inadvertent shuffling of papers and what city officials said may have been motivated by a cover-up.

Though it was a messy local political dispute, the case nevertheless presented an important First Amendment question for the Supreme Court: When may people sue government officials for First Amendment retaliation claims – and when are those suits barred by a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity that shields those officials from certain suits?

Normally, a person alleging retaliatory arrest must demonstrate police had not proven probable cause. But there is an exception: Police are not shielded from such lawsuits if officers often exercise discretion not to arrest – say, for petty crimes like jaywalking.

But unlike jaywalking, taking government documents during a city council meeting is a rare occurrence. Gonzalez’s attorneys said there is no way to demonstrate that police had let slide similar infractions involving others – since there were none.

In its opinion Thursday, the court ruled that Gonzalez should be allowed to present her evidence that she was arrested as retaliation for her actions.

The court wrote that while the exception to the rule on bypassing probable cause is “slim,” the appeals court’s “demand” for identical situations “goes too far.”

Gonzalez’s evidence should be at least considered “because the fact that no one has ever been arrested for engaging in a certain kind of conduct – especially when the criminal prohibition is longstanding 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 court wrote.

The court’s decision will allow Gonzalez’s case to continue.

In dissent, Thomas asserted that there shouldn’t be an exception to the probable cause rule on retaliatory arrests and he criticized the court for what he described as further expanding that exception.

“I would adhere to the only rule grounded in history,” Thomas wrote. “Probable cause defeats a retaliatory arrest claim.”

Prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges against Gonzalez. She sued in federal court, alleging retaliation in violation of the First Amendment and saying that city officials engineered a plan to arrest her and remove her from office.

A district court denied qualified immunity to the officers, allowing the case to continue, but Gonzalez lost at the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that there was probable cause to arrest her and that it “necessarily defeated” her retaliatory arrest claim.

Justice Samuel Alito was not present Thursday as his colleagues took their seats to announce the day’s opinions – a relatively rare absence.

The Supreme Court did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Alito’s absence.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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