Texas Grandmother Wins Supreme Court Case After Facing Jail for Alleged Political Retaliation

By: Alex Trent | Published: Jun 21, 2024

Sylvia Gonzalez, a 76-year-old grandmother and an ex-Texas councilwoman won big in a lawsuit allowance ruling by the US Supreme Court on Thursday after serving jail time that she alleges was a result of political retaliation.

Gonzalez in 2019 organized a petition to remove the city manager of Castle Hills, Texas from office. Afterward, she was jailed for mishandling a government document, charges that were eventually dropped, and ones she claims were levied in retaliation to her political actions.

Gonzalez Lawsuit

Gonzalez and her representatives from the nonprofit group Institute for Justice sued the Mayor of Castle Hills and other city officials for a “retaliatory arrest” that was alleged to be a plot to remove her from office for criticizing the city manager.

A close-up of a wooden judge’s gavel against a black background.

Source: Tingey Injury Law Firm/Unsplash

The lawsuit argued that the action to charge her in this way violated her rights under the First and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.


City Manager Petition

Gonzalez claims she was elected to her position in response to complaints she heard from her constituents over city manager Ryan Rapelye who they felt had been ignoring their concerns.

Sylvia Gonzalez faces the viewer while standing bear trees and plants.

Source: IJ/X

Once elected, Gonzalez introduced a petition calling for Rapelye to be replaced with a previous city manager who his critics thought had done a better job in the role. Discussions of the petition a the council meeting were “contentious” according to records in the court.

Charged With a Crime

Gonzalez would be later charged with violating a state law around mishandling government documents that she thinks is a form of retaliation for trying to push the petition to remove the city manager.

A person raises their hands who are bound by handcuffs.

Source: Niu Niu/Unsplash

The document in question was actually the non-binding petition that she herself had initiated and created, which she had “misplaced” in her binder after the contentious council meeting. After discovering the error she allegedly put the document back and thought nothing of it.

Jail Time

However, two months later, Gonzalez found out there was a warrant out for her arrest because of the incident. After being arrested in handcuffs, Gonzalez, then 72 years old, spent a day in jail.

Someone looks at the hallway of a prison from inside a cell.

Source: Matthew Ansley/Unsplash

“I didn’t even know what I was accused of,” Gonzalez told Fox News. “I’d never been in jail… and it was very scary to an old lady like me.”

Police Investigation

In her lawsuit, Gonzalez alleges that Mayor JR Trevino and Police Chief John Siemens used the displaced petition incident to launch a weeks-long criminal probe into her as a form of political retaliation.

An up-close look at the blue lights on top of a police vehicle.

Source: Max Fleischmann/Unsplash

Gonzalez accused the police chief of assigning a “trusted friend and local attorney” to act as a “special detective” who produced an affidavit accusing Gonzalez of fabrications and probable cause that Gonzalez stole her own petition.


Texas Law

According to Texas law, people are banned from intentionally destroying or removing government records.

The Texas flag on a pole blowing in the wind against a clear blue sky.

Source: Pete Alexopoulos/Unsplash

“A person commits an offense if he: intentionally destroys, conceals, removes, or otherwise impairs the verity, legibility, or availability of a governmental record,” says § 37.10 of the Texas Penal Code.


Unusual Law Application

Gonzalez argued in her lawsuit that a review of 215 other convictions under this Texas anti-tampering law found that someone had never been charged with stealing a non-binding document.

An up-close look at the scales of justice attached to a statue.

Source: NomeVisualizzato/Pixabay

Institute for Justice senior Counsel Anya Bidwell said this statute was mainly used for punishing people stealing fake social security numbers, check forgeries, and counterfeit green cards. Bidwell asserted that in 10 years of looking at County data, she couldn’t find “anything even remotely similar” to how Gonzalez was charged.


Extraordinary Circumstances

The lawsuit from Gonzalez claims that the special detective made an unusual decision to ask for an arrest warrant instead of a summons for a nonviolent misdemeanor, which she asserts was an effort to punish her.

A bunk bed seen behind prison bars.

Source: RDNE Stock project/Pexels

“They wanted to punish me, and they wanted to make sure I went to jail. And they did a good job,” Gonzalez said.


Political Consquences

Although the charges against Gonzalez were eventually dropped, she argues that the incident had ruined her political career. The evening news ran the story with her mugshot, and she contends she was removed from her city council position.

Sylvia Gonzalez stands in front of a her city council sign.

Source: DanAlBan/X

“The sheriff [that] swore me in, he was not qualified is what they said,” said Gonzalez in a March interview with WOAI. “The city attorney was sitting right there, nobody said anything. They waited until the 30 days were up and then they told me ‘Oh he’s not qualified to swear you in’.”


Supreme Court Ruling

Previously, her lawsuit was stopped in a Fifth Circuit court which ruled that she had not presented enough evidence to advance her case.

A close-up on the Supreme Court during sunset.

Source: Ian Hutchinson/Unsplash

However, the new ruling from the Supreme Court overturned this Fifth Circuit decision, saying the court had been “overly cramped” about the rules regarding evidentiary standards. This ruling allows Gonzalez to continue forward with her lawsuit claim which will now head back to the Fifth Circuit.


Specific Evidence

The Supreme Court thought that the demand for such specific evidence around the Texas anti-tampering statute went too far, and the evidence she provided should be enough to move forward with her claim.

A magnifying glass against a blue background.

Source: Markus Winkler/Unsplash

“That court thought Gonzalez had to provide very specific comparator evidence — that is, examples of identifiable people who ‘mishandled a government petition’ in the same way Gonzalez did but were not arrested,” the Supreme Court said in an unsigned opinion. “The demand for virtually identical and identifiable comparators goes too far.”