CASTLE HILLS, Texas – The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of a former Castle Hills councilwoman who sued city officials following her arrest on a tampering charge after criticizing the city manager.
Sylvia Gonzalez, 76, partnered with the Institute for Justice in September 2020 to file a federal lawsuit against the City of Castle Hills to “vindicate her First Amendment rights.”
Gonzalez was elected to office in 2019 and became the first Hispanic councilwoman in Castle Hills history. In response to concerns raised by her constituents, Gonzalez supported a nonbinding, citizen-signed petition calling for the removal of City Manager Ryan Rapelye.
Two months after presenting the petition and an investigation by the Castle Hills Police Department regarding a meeting involving Gonzalez, another city councilwoman, Rapelye, Mayor J.R. Trevino and Sgt. Paul Turner, Gonzalez was arrested for misplacing a document in her binder at a council meeting. The document was the petition to remove Rapelye from office. City officials argued that Gonzalez had stolen her own petition from Trevino as she was gathering her papers at the end of a council meeting.
“Instead of issuing a summons for the nonviolent misdemeanor,” said U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra, “[the city] obtained a warrant to arrest the 72-year-old, which ensured that she would spend time in jail rather than remaining free and appearing before a judge.”
Gonzalez spent a day in jail and the charges were dropped by the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office. She then resigned from the city council.
“I didn’t think this could happen in America,” Gonzalez said in a press release. “No one should be arrested for standing up for what they believe in. I’m hopeful that the Supreme Court will hold the city accountable so that no one else will have to go through what I went through.”
Several months later, Gonzalez filed the lawsuit. The case was heard by a district court judge, who denied qualified immunity to city officials. The ruling, though, was reversed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fifth Circuit held that because the city had concocted sufficient probable cause to arrest Sylvia, she could not bring a First Amendment claim.
“We are thrilled that the Court agreed to hear Sylvia’s case,” said Anya Bidwell, an attorney at the Institute for Justice. “Criminal laws cannot be used to launder First Amendment violations and create backdoor censorship. But that’s exactly how Castle Hills officials used them against Sylvia.”