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Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

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The American Civil Liberties Union and Rothstein Donatelli LLC have filed a lawsuit against the Rio Arriba Sheriff’s Office (RASO) on behalf of Tabitha Clay, a reporter who was reportedly harassed by the county’s deputies in 2019. The lawsuit brings claims against RASO and the County Board of Commissioners, Sheriff James D. Lujan and former Deputy Jeremy Barnes for violating Clay’s First Amendment rights and intimidation against the reporter.

“Police officers can’t just silence journalists because they don’t like being exposed for wrongdoing,” said Leon Howard, legal director at the ACLU of New Mexico. “That’s not how democracy works. Members of the press help keep government entities accountable to the people by serving as watchdogs. Freedom of information is a baseline requirement for democracy,” Howard added. The lawsuit seeks to set a precedent for New Mexico to protect members of the press and freedom of speech. The reported treatment of Clay by the RASO would have possibly set a dangerous example for the rest of the state in a time that Howard says to be largely anti-press. 

Clay and the ACLU believe that the hostile behavior was initially from a story that Clay published about former Deputy Barnes’s failure to do in-service training since 2011. Clay also reported harassment and intimidation by the sheriff’s office on May 29, 2019, when she reported for the Rio Grande Sun that Deputy Barnes unlawfully tased a minor. The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office investigated the event and charged Barnes with one count each of abuse of a child, false imprisonment, aggravated battery and breaking ethical principles of public service. Rio Arriba County settled the case with the family.

According to the ACLU, Clay immediately faced backlash by the RASO when they stopped providing her with public records which she had access to prior to that incident. 

Clay’s relationship further deteriorated with RASO when on July 1, 2019, she arrived at a scene of a fatal accident that former Deputy Barnes also responded to. It was reported that Deputy Barnes yelled at Clay and threatened to arrest her. Clay left the scene.

The relationship between Clay and the RASO took a more sinister turn when in September of 2019, Clay noticed that two RASO units were parked outside of her apartment. No official business was determined and Clay suspected that the officers, one of them being Barnes, were there for the sole purpose of intimidation. Deputies also barred Clay from entering Rio Arriba County Court with equipment she used for reporting.

“From denying me access to records, accident scenes, and the courts to showing up at my home to intimidate me, it became increasingly clear that the sheriff and deputies were actively trying to silence me,” Clay said. “I’m bringing this suit to send a clear message to the sheriff and deputies that their attempts to bully reporters into giving up their First Amendment rights won’t go unanswered,” Clay said.  

This isn’t the first time that Sheriff Lujan is facing legal battles of his own. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, the current sheriff was barred from driving a patrol car, making arrests or carrying a gun in 2020.

The sheriff was charged with showing up drunk at an Española police SWAT scene in March of 2020 and interfering with the operation. He has been arrested twice since then—in May of last year, on charges of obstructing Española officers who were investigating the case, and in June, on counts of aiding a felon and bribing a witness in an incident that occurred four years ago.

His undersheriff, Martin Trujillo, is also facing felony charges for ordering deputies to pull their weapons on Taos County deputies attempting to serve a search warrant on the Rio Arriba Sheriff’s Office.

Read the lawsuit here:

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