Texas Civil Rights Project sues the city of Progreso

The Texas Civil Rights Project has sued the city of Progreso alleging it is not complying with a request for numerous records related to vehicle impoundments that the organization sought under the Texas Public Information Act.

TCRP filed the lawsuit on Sept. 10, alleging that the city did not seek the Texas Attorney General’s opinion to withhold the requested information made in four separate open records requests filed on May 12, which the city received on May 15.

“On May 21, 2020, counsel for Defendant requested a clarification of the Requests via telephone without specifying what about TCRP’s requests were unclear. TCRP explained to Defendant its belief that the Requests could not be clearer as to the records requested, and instead asked that Defendant provide a cost estimate for producing the records,” TCRP says in the lawsuit.

That same day, the city of Progreso’s attorney, Javier Villalobos, emailed TCRP asking that it clarify or narrow its request, as well as saying some records are exempt or require no response “as AG opinions are on point,” according to the lawsuit.

TCRP also claims Villalobos said providing a cost estimate would be difficult without the requests being narrowed.

“Counsel for Defendant provided no basic information about the ‘records or active cases’ it referenced in response to TCRP’s Requests and subsequent clarification. Nor did he offer any AG opinion demonstrating Defendant’s entitlement to withhold the specific records requests,” the lawsuit states.

The deadline to request an AG opinion, according to TCRP, was June 1.

However, on June 5, the back-and-forth between TCRP and the city of Progreso continued, according to the litigation.

“On information and belief, Defendant has not requested an Attorney General’s opinion concerning the substance of the Requests. More than ten (10) business days have passed since the Requests were made,” the lawsuit states.

TCRP says the city did turn over three pages of information it says is responsive “to a single sub-request” contained in the four open record requests the organization filed with the city. That information appears to be a hand-written log of vehicle impoundments.

“Since TCRP received this information, Defendant has advised, via telephone, that it is in possession of additional information responsive to the Requests but that it is withholding this information because it pertains to ‘active case’ information,” the lawsuit states.

TCRP alleges the city of Progreso has not indicated when the additional responsive information will be available for inspection or duplication; has provided no compelling reason to withhold it and has not sought an AG’s opinion; and has provided no previous determination from the AG to justify withholding the information.

In an answer to the lawsuit filed on Nov. 20, the city of Progreso said it denies each and every allegation levied by the TCRP.

Erin Thorn Vela, the TCRP attorney who filed the requests, said Texans deserve to know what their tax dollars are working toward.

“Under the Public Information Act our elected officials have a clear duty to answer requests for information that belongs to the public, full stop. Texans deserve to know what their government is doing and what their tax dollars are going towards, and our suit aims to uphold this essential right,” Vela said in a statement.

Each of the TCRP’s four requests seek records related to vehicle impoundments.

The first was sent to the police department and sought the following records from March 1 to May 12:

  • All encounter reports, incident reports, records of citation and/or arrest records from an encounter or stop that resulted in the impounding of a vehicle;
  • All dashcam and body cam footage and audio related to a traffic stop or encounter that resulted in the impounding of a vehicle;
  • All records related to the impounding of a vehicle in the course of an encounter or stop, including inventories, logs and any photos;
  • All records related to setting, accepting or modifying bail, bond or release on personal recognizance related to a criminal charge resulting from a police encounter or stop in which a vehicle was impounded; and
  • All records of payment of bail or bond related to an arrest in which a vehicle was impounded.

TCRP also filed a request with the city’s police department seeking its training manual, its handbook, and all orders, policies and procedures related to impounding vehicles.

In a third request that the organization filed with the city of Progreso’s municipal court, it requested all court records related to cases filed that involved vehicle impoundments; records of bail or bond involving vehicle impoundments; payment records for bonds involving vehicle impoundments; and records of the payment of vehicle impoundment fees, including storage fees, for between March 1 and May 12.

Lastly, TCRP filed a request with the city of Progreso for its municipal ordinances, policies or procedures related to vehicle impoundments; the same records for payment of impoundment fees, including storage fees; the city’s budget report for fiscal years 2017, 2018 and 2019; all records related to proposals, requests for bids, bidding, grading, scoring and awarding of vehicle storage or impounding contracts from Jan. 1, 2018, to May 12; and those same records for the same time period for towing or wrecking services contracts.

A docket control conference is scheduled in the case for Dec. 9.