Tyranny in Texas

Some people go to jail because they break the law. Sylvia Gonzalez landed in a Texas slammer because she criticized her local government.  Now the 74-year-old retiree is fighting back, trying to bring accountability to a system that too often lets public officials off the hook when they violate people's civil rights.

Gonzalez's ordeal started with a simple desire to help her community by serving on the Castle Hills City Council near San Antonio.  She knocked on doors and talked to more than 500 neighbors during her campaign, and what she heard strengthened her resolve to make a difference.  "They complained bitterly about the city," Gonzalez says.

After winning her 2019 election and becoming the first Hispanic councilwoman in city history, Gonzalez went to work.  Her first act in office was to champion a nonbinding citizens' petition calling for the city manager's removal.  Rather than taking notice of the public discontent, however, the mayor and other political insiders attacked the messenger.  They had Gonzalez arrested, handcuffed, and jailed as part of a prolonged intimidation campaign.

The supposed crime, which Bexar County officials refused to prosecute because the allegations were so far-fetched, involved a simple mix-up at a public meeting.  After a resident submitted the petition with more than 300 signatures, Gonzalez inadvertently collected it with other papers on the dais and put it in her personal binder.  The error was quickly discovered and corrected, but the mayor accused her of theft and filed a misdemeanor complaint two days later.

The specific charge?  "Tampering with a government record," a statute normally reserved for people who forge driver's licenses, green cards, Social Security numbers, and permits.  No previous case looked anything like the one against Gonzalez, who did nothing wrong, yet Castle Hills pressed forward.

"I got arrested and handcuffed," Gonzalez says.  "I got frisked."  She then sat for hours on a cold metal bench, wearing an orange jail shirt and avoiding the restroom, which had no doors.  She was not even allowed to stand up and stretch her legs. For someone who does not have a speeding ticket on her record, the retaliation was traumatic.

City officials, including the mayor and police chief, not only manufactured a criminal charge, but did everything they could to ensure that Gonzalez spent the day in jail.  Among other tactics, they circumvented the county's district attorney and secured an arrest warrant instead of a summons.  Both procedures would have allowed Gonzalez to appear before a judge, but a summons — the normal process for dealing with nonviolent misdemeanors — would have eliminated the need to be processed and put behind bars.

The sledgehammer tactic sent a clear message: never speak out again.  At first the city succeeded.  Exhausted, defamed, and unable to keep up with the mounting legal bills, Gonzalez left public office and abandoned her efforts to force reform.

She just wanted the mayor and police chief to leave her alone.  But now, with support from the nonprofit Institute for Justice, Gonzalez is fighting to ensure that what happened to her will not happen to anyone else.  A First Amendment complaint, which she filed on Sept. 29 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, seeks to hold city officials accountable for abusing her civil rights.

Her claim is straightforward: if citizens must follow the law, then government workers should have to follow the Constitution.  Retaliating against someone for political speech is a clear violation.  Ultimately, people like Gonzalez need assurances that the government will not harass them when they step forward to serve their neighbors.

"I only tried to do my job and represent them," she says.  Society should applaud such behavior, not punish it.

Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Austin and other locations nationwide.

Image courtesy ILJ.

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