Mercedes seeks partial dismissal of civil rights suit

The city of Mercedes issued its first response in federal court Tuesday seeking the partial dismissal of a civil rights lawsuit filed against it by mayoral candidate and community activist Israel Coronado, who alleges he was falsely arrested in December in an act of political retaliation.

In the 15-page motion — filed on behalf of the city and fellow co-defendants Mayor Henry Hinojosa and Police Chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez — Mercedes is asking the court to dismiss portions of Coronado’s complaints before moving on to address the remainder of his allegations.

“Because Plaintiff (Coronado) failed to identify any facts or authority on which relief may be granted for his alleged violations of the Fourteenth Amendment, for conspiracy or for the recovery of exemplary damages against the City or ‘expert fees’ or litigation expenses against any Defendant, those claims against Defendants should be dismissed,” the city’s motion reads.

Coronado sued Mercedes late last month, alleging the city, mayor and police chief violated his First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights as part of an organized campaign to harass him and silence his vocal criticisms of the city’s leadership.

“(O)fficials from the City of Mercedes targeted one of its own citizens, abusing the State’s police powers to retaliate and to silence criticism,” Coronado’s June 24 complaint reads.

A healthcare worker who first began his civic involvement after a 500-year storm devastated the Mid-Valley in June 2018, Coronado went from delivering scathing rebukes of dilapidated and crumbling drainage infrastructure at city commission meetings in Weslaco and Mercedes, to announcing last fall that he was running for mayor of the Queen City.

He became a constant fixture of Mercedes meetings, often using the open forum section of those meetings to criticize the city’s elected officials and administration, its finances, its infrastructure, and its hostility towards its own citizens.

Tensions escalated between city leaders and residents throughout the summer of 2019. The commission itself became fractured when the commission majority turned their attention toward attempting to censure one of their own commissioners in late August.

On Sept. 17, an overflow crowd of residents descended on city hall to protest what was feared to be the ouster of Commissioner Leonel Benavidez. The meeting devolved into a chaos that resulted in the arrest of four residents.

That meeting would go on to become the linchpin to both Coronado’s arrest in December, and his subsequent lawsuit against the city.

Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Ramirez ultimately dropped the charges against Coronado in mid-May.

As relationships and communication continued to sour throughout the fall of 2019, Coronado announced his mayoral candidacy in late November. A week later, he was taken into custody by Mercedes police. The charge: disrupting that Sept. 17 meeting.

“The arrest was made solely to retaliate against Coronado for exercising his rights to petition the government, to exercise free speech at public meetings…” in violation of his First Amendment rights, the lawsuit reads.

Coronado argues those free speech violations, in turn, violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights. “As a result of the City of Mercedes’s campaign to harass, retaliate and punish Coronado, Coronado has been deprived of both substantive and procedural due process guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” the complaint reads.

But it’s this part of the suit Mercedes has taken issue with in its motion for partial dismissal.

The city argues Coronado is muddying the issues — wrongly using the First and Fourth Amendments to try to establish a 14th Amendment claim. “Coronado cannot repackage a First or Fourth Amendment claim to establish a 14th Amendment due process violation, however,” the city’s motion reads.

“In particular, it is the Fourth Amendment that provides the standard for evaluation of his wrongful arrest claim, not the Fourteenth,” it further reads.

Coronado’s suit alleges, however, that the violations of his rights flowed one into another.

His First Amendment rights to free speech were stifled by his arrest — which he argues occurred without probable cause, in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable seizure, the suit claims.

And those violations, in turn, led to the violation of his 14th Amendment rights to due process, and to not be deprived by the state — in this case, the city of Mercedes — of his right to liberty.

But again, Mercedes disagrees with Coronado’s complaint, arguing the 14th Amendment requires he must “identify a property interest” before making such a claim. The city further claims such property interests are established not by the constitution, but by “independent sources” such as local ordinances or, in this case, the Mercedes City Commission.

“Because Coronado has not identified any contract or ‘express rules or policies limiting the conditions under which’ his speech, petition or arrest could be regulated, he has not identified an alleged due process right that even allegedly could have been violated,” the city’s motion reads.

Mercedes also takes aim at Coronado’s overarching allegation that the mayor and police chief conspired together to form an official policy to harass and intimidate him, using their power as agents of the city to do so.

The city argues, however, that Hinojosa and Chavez are its officials and employees — facets of a whole that cannot conspire against themselves. “Under Fifth Circuit law, a municipality and its employees are considered to be a single legal entity, and the entity is therefore incapable of conspiring against itself…” the motion reads.

Mercedes’ motion asks the judge to consider its motion to dismiss these parts of Coronado’s allegations before turning its attention to anything else, and before the city submits its original answer to the remainder of Coronado’s complaints.

Messages left with the city’s attorneys, including City Attorney Anthony Troiani, and J. Arnold Aguilar, an attorney from Brownsville whom the city has hired to represent it in this case, went unreturned as of press time Tuesday.

A message left with Coronado’s attorney, Omar Ochoa, also went unanswered.

The two sides will get their first face to face in court for an initial conference on Sept. 11.