FARMINGTON, N.M. — A judge has ruled that a charge of criminal libel against
a Farmington man was unconstitutional.
State District Judge William Birdsall dismissed the charge against Juan Mata,
32, with prejudice — meaning it cannot be filed again.
"In a time when fundamental rights are increasingly under siege, it is
incumbent upon the courts to safeguard the liberties provided for in our state
and federal constitutions," Birdsall wrote on April 4.
The law, he ruled, "is unconstitutional on its face."
Mata said he was both relieved and surprised by Birdsall's decision. "I'm
sort of lost for words," he said.
His attorney appealed to state district court after Mata was convicted in
magistrate court last August of criminal libel, harassment and stalking in
incidents involving his criticism of a police officer.
City Attorney Jay Burnham said the city of Farmington was not sure what it
would do next. The city could ask Birdsall to reconsider or it could appeal to
the state Court of Appeals. But the Court of Appeals had deemed the
criminal-libel law unconstitutional in 1992.
"We still feel strongly that we did the right thing," Burnham said.
Birdsall was scheduled to hear Mata's appeal to all three charges on April
17. Burnham said the city would pursue the stalking and harassment charges.
The executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, Bob
Johnson, praised Birdsall.
"The judge is the last line of defense when other agencies are trying to
crack down on people's civil rights," Johnson said. "It's a welcomed
The charges centered on whether Mata had a constitutional right to circulate
a petition asking the Farmington Police Department to investigate Officer Mike
Briseno, and to picket the department with signs calling Briseno a liar.
The harassment and stalking charges stemmed from the petition and picketing.
The criminal-libel charge referred to a letter written by a lawyer for Mata that
accused Briseno of felonies and asked the department to investigate alleged
actions by Briseno.
The charges were filed two months after Mata and his family filed a civil
rights lawsuit against the city in November 2004 alleging police brutality.
Mata's family settled the lawsuit for $75,000 in November 2005. The city did
not admit any wrongdoing in the settlement.