ESPAÑOLA – Attorneys have taken an initial step toward suing the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office, which is 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 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 Act 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 the treatment of Clay, including an allegation that Barnes and another deputy parked outside her home in July. The Sun reported that Clay lives in Santa Fe County, not Rio Arriba County.
After regularly covering police and crime scenes in the area, Clay was also threatened with arrest at an accident site while on the job, the newspaper said.
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 provided to the newspaper. She was also 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 First Amendment 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.”