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.