Texas Cops Arrest Journalist For Publishing Confidential Info Given To Her By A Police Officer

from the one-gets-a-paid-vacation,-one-gets-to-pay-to-head-off-an-unplanned-staycation dept

Something with a hint of retaliatory ugliness has reared its head in Laredo, Texas. Citizen journalist Priscilla Villarreal has been arrested for releasing information Texas law enforcement meant to keep secret. Villarreal — a.k.a. Lagordiloca — has been an unofficial fixture of Laredo nightlife for a few years now, cruising the town after dark to livestream footage of newsworthy events. She’s well-known to local law enforcement, though not exactly well-liked, which may have something to do with her recent legal troubles.

Villarreal, 32, surrendered to Laredo police on December 13 after being charged with two felony counts of “misuse of official information,” stemming from her reporting on a Border Patrol agent’s suicide last April. Villarreal denies that she did anything illegal, and her attorney says the police department is simply trying to silence her because it does not like the way she reports. She often swears while she narrates her live-streamed footage, and she sometimes captures graphic images. She has been known to verbally spar with police officers in public.

Misuse of official information” could be defined as nearly anything, thanks to its loose construction. It criminalizes the publication of information the government wishes to keep secret if the government feels the person doing the publication intended to profit from it or defraud someone by using it. Neither of those seem to fit Villarreal’s actions, but that hasn’t stopped the PD from moving forward with charges.

Police allege that Villarreal solicited information—the identity of a Border Patrol agent who committed suicide—from police officer Barbara Goodman before the department officially released that information through its public information office. “Information provided by Officer Goodman pertaining to the case in question was used by Priscilla Villarreal in her Facebook page ‘Lagordiloca News Laredo TX,’ immediately notifying her followers of the incident,” states the criminal complaint filed against Villarreal. “Villarreal’s access to this information and releasing it on ‘Lagordiloca News Laredo Tx,’ before the official release by the Laredo Police Department Public Information Officer placed her ‘Facebook’ page ahead of the local official news media which in turn gained her popularity in Facebook.

That last part — “gaining popularity” — is the linchpin of the Laredo PD’s case. That’s the closest the department can come to satisfying the “profit from” aspect of the law. But it’s unclear that the attention of Facebook followers is enough to make these charges stick. This is the end result of a months-long investigation of Officer Goodman and Villarreal’s relationship. According to the police, Officer Goodman and Villarreal had more than 500 phone conversations from January to July of 2016 — some of them supposedly coinciding with Villareal broadcasts where information that hadn’t been officially released by the department sometimes made its debut. Included in the info retrieved from Goodman’s phone were messages about the Border Patrol agent who committed suicide.

If there’s anyone at fault here, it’s the officer handing out confidential information to the press. But no charges have been filed against Goodman, who may not have published the info, but handed it over to someone with the capability to do so. The PD only seems interested in Villarreal, who did nothing more than publish information given to her by a law enforcement officer.

This push by the Laredo PD to silence a journalist may end up being nothing more than a departmental embarrassment. Police officials probably should have discussed the proposed charges with their partner in crime(fighting) before issuing an arrest warrant.

The Webb County District Attorney’s Office has never prosecuted a misuse of information case involving a citizen, the office’s spokesperson said Friday.

There’s no reason the DA should start now. The PD appears to have sniffed out the source of the leaks. It’s that source who should face punishment for the violations the department is trying to pin on Villarreal. A journalist isn’t expected to know what information is being rightfully withheld by law enforcement, and that determination is even harder to make when the info is received directly from a law enforcement officer. This looks far too much like the PD flexing its muscle to make life miserable for a freelance journalist officers don’t particularly care for. It bears no resemblance to the actual job of law enforcement.

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Comments on “Texas Cops Arrest Journalist For Publishing Confidential Info Given To Her By A Police Officer”

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37 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

“The Webb County District Attorney’s Office has never prosecuted a misuse of information case involving a citizen, the office’s spokesperson said Friday.”

Does not matter, just the arrest of someone is enough to start wrecking their life.

Remember folks, you are guilty until proven innocent, and even if you get lucky proving it you still have the shit stain on your public persona before you even start the fight for seeking damages.

TEP says:

Re: Avoid Texas

The Laredo cops deliberately made a vindictive False Arrest here … which the Judge should have immediately ruled in the initial court arraignment. Also, the local DA acted criminally in even proceeding with this case at all.

American cops have way too much discretionary arrest-authority and should get judicial arrest-warrants in most cases.

That Texas statute (Sec. 39.06. Misuse of Official Information) clearly applies ONLY to “Public Servants”
(government employees), not ordinary citizens. Plus, that statute is unconstitutionally vague in defining “official information”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Avoid Texas

“Plus, that statute is unconstitutionally vague in defining “official information”.”

I was not aware that the 1st said you have this right unless you are a government official. If you are a citizen you have a Constitutional right to give anything to the media, no matter how classified or national secret it is.

It is clear that the vast majority of American’s are not just ignorant, but incompetently ignorant of the Constitution. Not even Mike’s “precious” experts are exempt from this ignorance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Avoid Texas

you are correct. those texas criminal penalties for misusing official information are totally unconstitutional from the getgo

texas could impose some type of confidentiality-clause as a contractual condition of government employment, but that’s a minor civil law issue. Felony criminal penalties are outrageous and illegal under U.S. or texas constitutions

Anonymous Coward says:

when a reporter is not a reporter

I would disagree with Tim’s use of the word “journalist” here. Had Priscilla Villarreal worked for a large newspaper, then police would not have dared to arrest her. But since she is an independant “social media” poster without the backing of any big, well-funded organization to push back against authorities who retaliate against her, most any police agency would have little to fear for literally snuffing her out.

This is why reporters working for the NY Times and Washington Post routinely get away with publishing leaked classified information, while independent “journalists” such as Julian Assange who basically do the same thing are virtually guaranteed to face arrest and imprisonment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: when a reporter is not a reporter

I would disagree with Tim’s use of the word “journalist” here.

Why? Do you want to enable total corporate control over the reporting of newsworthy events?

Freedom of the press refers to use of a printing press, either one you owned, or one you hired, and there is nothing more that the powerful would like to achieves is to change that to news organizations, which they control.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: when a reporter is not a reporter

Had Priscilla Villarreal worked for a large newspaper, then police would not have dared to arrest her.

That is…kind of the whole point here, yes. Villarreal is not the kind of journalist who could publish stories without fear of being arrested for it. Of course the police would push to arrest such a journalist; it is easier for them to silence someone without the resources to successfully fight an obviously retaliatory arrest.

And yes, she is a journalist—a citizen journalist, but a journalist nonetheless. Please update your opinions for the realities of the 21st century.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: when a reporter is not a reporter

This is why reporters working for the NY Times and Washington Post routinely get away with publishing leaked classified information,

The ‘large newspaper’ press has been an important check against abuse of power, but it’s day is disappearing. Consider the movie Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s investigation of systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests. It’s been said that if the story happened today, it wouldn’t have been reported. The newspaper, with a much smaller subscription base and ability to absorb legal expenses, would have backed down in the face of Church opposition.

Professional journalists backed by a powerful newspaper may be preferable to citizen journalists working on audacity alone. But we may not have that choice.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: when a reporter is not a reporter

Newspapers can also be “bought.” The Los Angeles Times was once at the forefront of investigative reporting, but in recent years has had a habit if being the last to write about scandals happening in their own backyard.

Just a few things that were common knowledge around town for years that the LA Times had chosen to look the other way on:

Corrupt Sheriff Lee Baca

Scientology shenanigans

Harvey Weinstein’s casting couch

Bill Cosby’s rape factory

ANON says:

Re: when a reporter is not a reporter

You misunderstand. The first amendment applies to “citizens” not “reporters”. The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that even the collection of information is protected (which is why the state cannot criminalize the filming of police officers, for example). if information is collected that could be used in a publication, it is protected.

Similarly, by suggesting the illegal “profit” motive is gaining readers, by pointing out her main purpose is to speak to an audience, the state is not only shooting itself in the foot, it is aiming higher.

Anonymous Coward says:

that's no longer "official" information.

Information is only considered “official” when used by the officers themselves.

Once it’s been given to the press it is PUBLIC information.

The process of tranformation from “official” to “public” information happened when the officer released the official information as public information.

Thus, the charge of misuse of official information should be on the officer that misused that.

Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

The Case Has Already Been Decided

In Florida Star v. BJF, 491 U.S. 524 (1989), the US Supreme Court said that, if you lawfully obtained what was meant to be non-public information, you could publish it. There, the police dept had unintentionally included a rape victim’s name in the materials they made available to the press. Cub reporter did not know it was illegal to publish that information [Fla. Stat. 794.03, still on books as of 2017].

Vic sued, and the newspaper lost all the way through the state courts. Reversed, resoundingly.

It is possible that the Laredo PD could have a claim against the officer who provided the information, but they cannot plausibly claim that talking to a cop is an unlawful method of obtaining police information.

Legal advice is what you get from the attorney you hire, and you would probably want to hire one licensed in your state.

Anonymous Coward says:

This one reason why to go to foreign newspapers with such information.

The one who wanted to give that confidential information could have given it, say, to a newspaper in Mexico, and neither the paper, nor any of its staff, would have been subject to prosecution in the United States. A newspaper in Mexico is only subject to Mexican laws.

That is where Ed Snowden had some smarts. When he leaked those secrets years ago, He have it to newspapers in Britain and Hong Kong.

The Guardian, as a British newspaper, was not subject to prosecution in the United States. As a London-based paper, they are only subject to British laws.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Yes, but look at the history

Guardian didn’t get any official legal action but as a close ally to the US and to the Obama administration Downing Street sure harassed the hell out of the Guardian and its journalists.

One might have thought the UK was a province of the US. In fact, their behavior was acknowledged to imply as much right here.

It of course didn’t help that the GCHQ was getting unfettered access to the great NSA database. The orgies of bedfellows were conspicuous and scandalous.

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