Priscilla Villareal: A Victory for Accountability

Priscilla Villareal can now seek justice, reports the Institute for Justice (IJ). Thanks to the Fifth Circuit, the Texas-based citizen journalist can sue the corrupt cops who violated her rights. Meaning, the Fifth Circuit reversed a lower court’s unjust decision. Specifically, a decision granting the bad officers qualified immunity (QI). This is a victory for accountability.

“The Fifth Circuit rightly recognized that officers can’t rely on qualified immunity to commit obvious free speech and Fourth Amendment violations with impunity,” said IJ attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. IJ represented Priscilla Villareal. In addition, IJ is a Campaign to End Qualified Immunity coalition partner. 

As IJ notes, Priscilla Villareal is a “popular journalist” in her community. Villareal covers the local beat in Laredo, Texas. Although well-respected by Laredo’s citizens, she has caught the ire of the city’s police. 

Priscilla Villareal’s “critical reporting of the police made her a target for retaliation,” IJ indicates. Simply put, she called out bad cops for their misconduct. And the bad cops didn’t like it. In fact, they tried to stop her. First, they resorted to “intimidation tactics.” But that didn’t work. Second, they turned to what IJ calls “an odd state law.” Furthermore, they used this law to arrest her.

The law in question “prohibits ‘misuse of official information,’” IJ explains. Thus, “police argued that because [Priscilla Villareal] had obtained information by asking questions to an unauthorized officer, she was in violation of this seldom-used law.” However, IJ points out that Villareal did nothing illegal. After all, “this basic newsgathering method—asking the police questions—is what journalists do every day.”

At first, a lower court sided with the bad cops. Shockingly, the court gave the officers QI. As a result, Patricia Villareal couldn’t sue them. 

But then the Institute for Justice stepped in. 

IJ filed an amicus brief on behalf of Villareal. They urged the Fifth Circuit to overturn the lower court’s decision. Luckily, the appeals court agreed. Those bad cops blatantly violated Priscilla Villareal’s rights. They were not entitled to QI. Most importantly, Villareal can now seek justice.

“There is a big difference between ‘split-second decisions’ by police officers and premeditated plans to arrest a person for her journalism,” stated the Fifth Circuit. “Especially by local officials who have a history of targeting her because of her journalism.”

Read the entire IJ report on Priscilla Villareal’s win here.