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Police in a Texas border town used stay-at-home orders in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to unlawfully stop and arrest a high school senior driving to his mother’s house, according to a civil rights lawsuit that has its first hearing this week.
Socrates Shawn, then 18, was commuting between his divorced parents’ homes when he was pulled over in April 2020 by a police officer in Progreso, a town of about 4,800 residents in the Rio Grande Valley.
Attorneys with the Texas Civil Rights Project, who are representing Shawn, allege that the police officer had no reasonable suspicion to stop him and lacked probable cause to arrest him under the Fourth and 14th amendments.
Shawn was featured in a December 2020 investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune that found Progreso and other cities and counties in the Rio Grande Valley were among the most aggressive in the state for ticketing and arresting residents who violated orders that required them to stay home during the pandemic. Officials adopted curfews and banned nonessential travel.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court this April, cites the news organizations’ investigation, which included a finding that San Antonio and Austin issued only a combined 10 citations in April 2020. Progreso filed more than 60 citations during the same period, according to the news organizations’ findings. As a result, the border town doled out penalties 2,000 times more frequently, on a per-capita basis, than two of Texas’ largest cities, the lawsuit said.
According to the lawsuit, Shawn had a lawful reason to be driving because he had a court order that gave his parents joint custody of him. The custody order was in effect until he graduated from high school. His attorneys argue that the legal document fell within the numerous exceptions the city allowed under its stay-at-home rules, such as buying groceries, driving to and from work, and travel required by a court order.
They also contend that the county’s curfew was not set to start until two hours after Shawn was stopped. While the officer who arrested him said he violated the city’s curfew, they have found no evidence that a city curfew existed.
Attorneys representing Progreso did not respond to requests for comment. The lawyers have argued in court documents that the complaint does not establish a violation of the 14th Amendment. They also dispute the Fourth Amendment claim, arguing that officers can temporarily detain people for investigative purposes and for concerns about their own safety.
The first hearing in the case is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in McAllen.
Ricky Garza, an attorney with TCRP, said that while the lawsuit is focused on Progreso, aggressive law enforcement is a problem across the Rio Grande Valley. The region is a four-county area where law enforcement is omnipresent, the result of a patchwork of local police and sheriff’s departments and a large number of state and federal agencies that enforce immigration and border security laws.
One of the lawsuit’s goals is to ensure that law enforcement agencies in the region don’t continue to use emergencies, such as COVID-19, as a pretext to overpolice residents, Garza said.
“This was not something that began with the pandemic,” Garza said. “It predated it, and it is going to continue if we don’t do anything to hold cities like Progreso accountable.”
Aside from the city, the lawsuit names as defendants Officer Ernesto Lozano, who stopped Shawn, and Progreso police Chief Cesar Solis, who TCRP argues is the city’s law enforcement policymaker.
Solis did not respond to a request for comment.
Lozano now works for the Police Department in Edcouch, a city less than 15 miles north of Progreso. Reached by phone last week, he declined to speak and referred questions to the city of Progreso, which also did not respond.
After arresting Shawn, Lozano took him to the city’s jail, where TCRP said he was exposed to officers and city employees for hours, before COVID-19 vaccines were available and in violation of the public health order police purported to enforce. The lawsuit contends these actions put Shawn’s health and safety at risk.
Shawn said an officer told him he would have to pay $1,000, the maximum fine allowed for violating the order. He told the news organizations in 2020 that officers allowed him to leave without paying the fine immediately.
Eventually, he got his citation dismissed — but only after spending months trying to fight off a private collection agency working with the city. He is now seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages in the lawsuit.
Shawn’s lawyers said he was not immediately available for an interview but instead provided a statement from him in which he said his experience continues to weigh on him.
“It was jarring to be pulled over and arrested for simply driving through Progreso,” he said in the statement. “I’m more worried about my safety when I drive now and I had to spend two years of my life waiting for Progreso to drop the illegal charges against me. I hope that through this lawsuit, we’re able to keep this from happening to others in the future.”