ESPAÑOLA — Attorneys have taken an initial step toward suing a sheriff’s department accused of retaliating against a journalist as she reported on use-of-force at a high school and other stories about the department.
The American Civil Liberties Union sent a tort claims notice to the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office last week, outlining concerns that Sheriff James Lujan and his department infringed on the constitutional free press rights of Tabitha Clay, a reporter for the Rio Grande Sun.
She has reported about a now-former deputy shown on video deploying a stun gun on a special needs student in May. Jeremy Barnes, the former deputy, was charged last month with child abuse, false imprisonment, aggravated battery and violation of the Governmental Conduct in the case.
A hearing for Barnes is scheduled for Oct. 29.
Adan Trujillo, the county attorney, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Leon Howard, legal director of the ACLU in New Mexico, said his office is continuing its investigation into treatment of Clay, including that Barnes and another deputy parked outside of her home in July. The Sun reported that Clay does not live in Rio Arriba County. After regularly covering police and crime scenes in the area, Clay also was threatened with arrest at an accident site while on the job, the newspaper reported.
Other accusations in the ACLU’s notice center on concerns that the sheriff hampered her ability to obtain routine information, including daily dispatch logs that in the past were regularly provided to the newspaper. She also was blocked by the sheriff from entering a courthouse with reporting equipment, such as her laptop, camera and cellphone, after months of doing so.
“Because of the things that have happened, she’s afraid,” Howard said. “We’re hoping to put a stop to any further retaliation.”
Howard said the notice sent to the sheriff does not represent a guarantee that a lawsuit will be filed. He said it’s rare for the ACLU in New Mexico to receive a free press complaint from a reporter, which is one of the reasons Clay’s situation quickly caught his office’s attention.
“Particularly in smaller places, the sheriff of the county has a lot of power and a lot of the press in those communities is very small,” he said. “If the press is afraid they are going to be retaliated against for doing their jobs, that can lead those counties to fall the way of corruption.”