Judge Monica Z. Notzon has thrown out a Laredo Police Department felony case with statewide free speech and free press implications.
Notzen, representing the 111th District in Laredo, dismissed charges against Priscilla Villarreal, who gained national notoriety as the self-described La Gordiloca, or crazy fat lady, who has kept more than 82,000 followers on Facebook informed with her often verbally blunt police dispatches.
Notzon found the Laredo Police Department’s two third-degree felony counts of “misuse of official information,” which prompted the arrest of Villarreal on Dec. 13, unconstitutionally vague.
The judge ruled Villareal had not violated the state statute because there had been no prior prohibition on the police information she published and it was unclear whether she had derived any “benefit” from its publication, as described in the statute.
While Notzon chose not to address the First Amendment freedom of speech issue, Houston attorney Joe Larsen said it was likely the police department would have lost on those grounds too.
A ruling against Villarreal would have opened the door to government prosecutions of citizens across Texas for the dissemination of public information, Larsen, a First Amendment expert and a member of the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told The Texas Monitor Tuesday.
“I applaud the court for dismissing this case,” Larsen said. “It’s a check on law enforcement. For God’s sake, there couldn’t be a more fundamental right than the gathering of news. It’s an issue of freedom of access to the government.”
District Attorney Isidro Alaniz told the San Antonio Express-News Webb County would not appeal Notzon’s ruling but said, “We believe that the law was on our side. We applied the law that was in the books. The court determined it was vague and unconstitutional, and we’re making the decision not to appeal.”
Alaniz told the Express-News the police department is continuing to investigate who in the department might have leaked information to Villarreal. The department’s refusal to drop the matter reinforces the idea that this was all along a “vendetta,” against Villarreal, Larsen said. “They don’t like this woman. They don’t like what she’s doing.”
What Villarreal has gone back to doing is maintaining a kind of local newsletter on her Facebook page, a noisy mercado of ideas that include the goings-on in her neighborhood, police blotter items and the promotion of boxing matches in and around Laredo.
The announcements are most frequently editorialized, sometimes relying on the f-word for punctuation.
The Texas Monitor reached Villarreal on Tuesday and she consented to an interview, but did not return the invitation before publication of this story.
On Dec. 13, the day she turned herself in to the Laredo Police Department, the local newspaper referred to La Gordiloca as an “internet sensation.”
Most of the police news Villarreal posted came from listening to her police scanner. It was not unusual for her to use the information provided over the air to show up at police investigations. There are posts on her Facebook page critiquing police officers by name.
Villarreal several times posted in colorful language that a “corrupt” element of the police department didn’t like her involvement in police matters, something she said would not deter her from informing the public.
Officers got word to Villarreal that they intended to arrest her for having published the name U.S. Customs and Border Protection employee who jumped to his death from a city overpass, without department permission, according to the Laredo Morning Times.
Investigators alleged she got the name from an officer with the department, but had not found out who it was.
The department later identified the officer as Barbara Goodman, who was placed on administrative reassignment while the investigation continued. “Information provided by Officer Goodman pertaining to the case in question,” the criminal complaint said, “was used by Priscilla Villarreal in her Facebook page ‘Lagordiloca News Laredo TX,’ immediately notifying her followers of the incident.”
Villarreal turned herself in on Dec. 13 and told the local press she had all the proof she needed to expose the police department’s personal vendetta against her.
“What the police don’t understand is that my sources are the people out and around my town,” she said at the time. “Every time there’s an accident or something, everybody calls me or texts me,” she said. “The officers are angry at the fact” that people “give me the information first.”
In short order, La Gordiloca blew up. First there was the admiring and detailed profile in Texas Monthly. Eight days after her arrest, The Washington Post did a magazine-length piece. Recently, NPR’s Latino USA did a takeout titled “Livin’ Lagordiloca.” The American Bar Association Journal even took on the free speech issues involved in Villarreal’s case.
The department’s case rested on the premise that Villareal had published information prohibited from release, something police can do during an ongoing investigation, but did not do in this case, Larsen said. The department also contended Villarreal derived a “benefit,” from its publication, something Notzon could not find.
After Notzon ruled last Wednesday, Villarreal took to her Facebook page with a selfie video, spoken in Spanish. “I want to thank the Laredo police, because out of something bad came something good,” she said.
“Let me start by saying this my arrest was never about Officer Goodman supposedly giving me information on accidents,” she said in one post on the same day, “it has always been about them not liking me!”
“YOU ALL WANTED THE TRUTH WELL HERE IT IS!! I’m here to serve the community and give the best of information that I can so that they can be aware of what is happening in our city,” she said in another post. “I’m not here to give the Police Department and or any other Department a hard time. I wanna be able to give the public CORRECT info on any accident or situation that may arise from whatever may be happening in our city. I can care less if you all like me but I’m not here to make friends I’m here for the people of Laredo!”
Larsen said Villarreal proved an important point that might still be lost on the Laredo Police Department. “What’s regrettable is, rather than accept their loss with dignity, they appear to be reserving the right to press this again. If they really believe the law is on their side, why not appeal?”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].