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N.M. criminal-libel charge ruled unconstitutional

By The Associated Press
04.06.06

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 ruling."

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.


Update
Jury finds N.M. man didn't harass police
Juan Mata of Farmington was originally charged with criminal libel. 07.21.06

Previous
N.M. man sentenced for violating criminal-libel law
Attorney immediately files appeal, says conviction under seldom-used statute violates Juan Mata's free speech. 10.19.05

Related

The crime of speaking ill of your betters

By Paul K. McMasters Criminal-libel laws force defendants to face not individuals allegedly defamed, but the government as prosecutor and the taxpayer as underwriter. 11.06.05

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