Villarreal v. City of Laredo

Decision Date12 August 2022
Docket Number20-40359
Citation44 F.4th 363
Parties Priscilla VILLARREAL, Plaintiff—Appellant, v. The CITY OF LAREDO, TEXAS; Webb County, Texas ; Isidro R. Alaniz ; Marisela Jacaman; Claudio Trevino, Jr.; Juan L. Ruiz; Deyanria Villarreal; Enedina Martinez ; Alfredo Guerrero; Laura Montemayor ; Does 1-2, Defendants—Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

JT Morris, JT Morris Law, P.L.L.C., Austin, TX, for PlaintiffAppellant.

William Michael McKamie, Esq., Olson, Adkins, Sralla & Elam, L.L.P., San Antonio, TX, Alicia K. Kreh, Taylor, Taylor, Olson, Adkins, Sralla & Elam, L.L.P., Fort Worth, TX, for Defendants - Appellees City of Laredo, Texas, Claudio Trevino, Jr., Juan L. Ruiz, Deyanria Villarreal, Enedina Martinez, Alfredo Guerrero, Laura Montemayor, Does 1-2.

Jason Eric Magee, Allison, Bass & Magee, L.L.P., Austin, TX, for Defendants - Appellees Webb County, Texas, Isidro R. Alaniz, Marisela Jacaman.

Jaba Tsitsuashvili, Anya Bidwell, Attorney, Caroline Grace Brothers, Patrick M. Jaicomo, Arif Panju, Institute for Justice, Arlington, VA, for Amicus Curiae Institute for Justice.

Kathryn Cherry, Office of the Attorney General, Office of the Solicitor General, Austin, TX, for Intervenor State of Texas.

Laura Lee Prather, Counsel, Haynes & Boone, L.L.P., Austin, TX, for Amici Curiae Texas Association of Broadcasters, Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, News Leaders Association, Society of Professional Journalists.

Before Richman, Chief Judge, and Graves and Ho, Circuit Judges.

James C. Ho, Circuit Judge:

We previously issued an opinion in this case and noted that a dissenting opinion was forthcoming. See Villarreal v. City of Laredo , 17 F.4th 532, 536 n.* (5th Cir. 2021). We now withdraw our prior opinion and substitute the following in its place.

* * *

If the First Amendment means anything, it surely means that a citizen journalist has the right to ask a public official a question, without fear of being imprisoned. Yet that is exactly what happened here: Priscilla Villarreal was put in jail for asking a police officer a question.

If that is not an obvious violation of the Constitution, it's hard to imagine what would be. And as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held, public officials are not entitled to qualified immunity for obvious violations of the Constitution.

The district court accordingly erred in dismissing Villarreal's First and Fourth Amendment claims on qualified immunity grounds. The district court also erred in dismissing her Fourteenth Amendment claim for failure to state a claim. We reverse in part and affirm in part and remand for further proceedings.

I.

For purposes of this appeal, we accept the factual allegations stated in Villarreal's complaint as true. See, e.g. , Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).

A.

Priscilla Villarreal is a journalist in Laredo, Texas. She regularly reports on local crime, missing persons, community events, traffic, and local government. But Villarreal is not a traditional journalist. Instead of publishing her stories in the newspaper, she posts them on her Facebook page. Instead of using a tape recorder to conduct interviews, she uses her cell phone to live-stream video footage of crime scenes and traffic accidents. Her reporting frequently includes colorful—and often unfiltered—commentary. Perhaps because of this, she is one of Laredo's most popular news sources, with more than 120,000 Facebook followers. See, e.g. , Simon Romero, La Gordiloca: The Swearing Muckraker Upending Border Journalism , N.Y. Times (Mar. 10, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/10/us /gordiloca-laredo-priscilla-villarreal.html ("[Villarreal] is arguably the most influential journalist in Laredo, a border city of 260,000.").

Villarreal is not shy about criticizing law enforcement. For example, in 2015, law enforcement uncovered evidence of animal abuse on the property of a relative of Marisela Jacaman, Webb County's Chief Assistant District Attorney. Villarreal vocally denounced the district attorney's decision to recall the arrest warrant for Jacaman's relative on animal cruelty charges and instead pursue a civil settlement. On another occasion, Villarreal live-streamed Laredo Police Department (LPD) officers choking an arrestee during a traffic stop.

Not surprisingly, local law enforcement officials were less than enthused with Villarreal's reporting. During a meeting with Villarreal, Webb County District Attorney Isidro Alaniz told her that he did not appreciate her criticism of the decision to withdraw the arrest warrant for Chief Assistant District Attorney Jacaman's relative. On another occasion, an officer threatened to take Villarreal's cell phone when she was recording a crime scene from behind a barricade—while saying nothing to the other members of the media standing next to her.

B.

In April 2017, Villarreal published a story about a man who committed suicide. The story identified the man by name and revealed that he was an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol. Villarreal first uncovered this information from talking to a janitor who worked near the scene of the suicide. She then contacted LPD Officer Barbara Goodman, who confirmed the man's identity.

The following month, Villarreal published the last name of a family involved in a fatal car accident in Laredo. She first learned the family's identity from a relative of the family who saw a video that Villarreal had posted. Again, Villarreal contacted Officer Goodman, and again, the officer verified this information.

Six months later, two arrest warrants were issued for Villarreal for violating Texas Penal Code § 39.06(c). According to Villarreal, local officials have never brought a prosecution under § 39.06(c) in the nearly three-decade history of that provision—and Defendants do not contend otherwise.

Section 39.06(c) states that "[a] person commits an offense if, with intent to obtain a benefit ... , he solicits or receives from a public servant information that: (1) the public servant has access to by means of his office or employment; and (2) has not been made public." TEX. PENAL CODE § 39.06(c). According to the affidavit in support of the arrest warrants, Villarreal solicited or received the names of the suicide victim and the traffic accident victims (which, according to the affidavit, was "nonpublic" information). The affidavit further alleged that Villarreal benefitted from publishing this information before other news outlets, by gaining additional followers on her Facebook page. Chief Assistant District Attorney Jacaman approved the arrest warrant application.

After learning about the warrant, Villarreal turned herself in. During the booking process, Villarreal saw LPD officers taking pictures of her in handcuffs with their cell phones. The officers mocked and laughed at her. Villarreal was then detained at the Webb County Jail.

Villarreal filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Webb County district court. In March 2018, a judge granted her petition and held that § 39.06(c) was unconstitutionally vague. The government did not appeal.

She subsequently brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against various LPD officers, Webb County prosecutors, Webb County, and the City of Laredo. The suit alleged a pattern of harassment and retaliation by various local officials, culminating in her arrest, in violation of her First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. She sought damages as well as injunctive and declaratory relief.

Defendants moved to dismiss all of her claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The officials sought dismissal on grounds of qualified immunity and failure to state a claim, and the county and city sought dismissal under Monell . The district court granted the motion and dismissed all claims accordingly.

Villarreal appeals the dismissal of her claims against the officials under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. She also appeals the dismissal of her municipal liability claims against the City of Laredo, but not her claims against Webb County.

We review de novo a district court's dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Sw. Bell Tel., LP v. City of Houston , 529 F.3d 257, 260 (5th Cir. 2008). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, Villarreal must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). With respect to the defense of qualified immunity, Villarreal must plead specific facts that defeat that defense with equal specificity. Backe v. LeBlanc , 691 F.3d 645, 648 (5th Cir. 2012).

II.

Villarreal alleges that Defendants violated her First Amendment rights in two ways—first, by infringing on her constitutional right to ask questions of public officials, and second, by arresting her in retaliation for her exercise of First Amendment rights. We address each in turn.

A.

The district court dismissed her First Amendment infringement claim against various officials on qualified immunity grounds, finding that any violation was not clearly established at the time. We disagree.

To defeat qualified immunity at the motion to dismiss stage, Villarreal must allege, first, that the officials violated her First Amendment rights, and second, that their actions were objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law. See, e.g. , Powers v. Northside Indep. Sch. Dist. , 951 F.3d 298, 305–06 (5th Cir. 2020). The crucial question in this inquiry is whether "a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates [a constitutional] right."

Anderson v. Creighton , 483 U.S. 635, 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987). "The central concept is that of ‘fair warning.’ " Kinney v. Weaver , 367 F.3d 337, 350 (5th Cir. 2004) (en banc) (quoting Hope v. Pelzer , 536 U.S. 730, 740, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002) ).

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