Lawsuit moves forward in Progreso teen’s pandemic arrest

Two years after a teenager was stopped, cited and arrested during the pandemic, attorneys in McAllen are debating whether the Progreso Police Department was justified in making the stop.

The Texas Civil Rights Project represented Socrates Shawn, who was a teen when he was arrested, during an initial hearing against the city on Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa.

Ricky Garza, one of Shawn’s attorneys, was hoping to make his case during their first appearance before Hinojosa, but instead, Hinojosa zeroed in on the attorney representing the city.

“I don’t really understand what the defense is,” an exasperated Hinojosa said during the hearing.

The teenager was arrested nearly an hour-and-a-half before Hidalgo County’s pandemic curfew started in April 2020.

Hinojosa pressed Joel Arnold Aguilar, the attorney representing Progreso, for an answer.

“There’s no violation whatsoever,” the judge told Aguilar, who appeared virtually for the hearing.

Aguilar assured the judge the city had a response, even though he was unable to articulate it at the time.

“It’s an arrest that never should have happened,” Garza, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said after the hearing.

On Apr. 8, 2020, Shawn was leaving his father’s house in Progreso Lakes and driving to McAllen to be with his mother, as per their divorce decree. But before he could reach his mother’s house, he was stopped by Progreso police.

The officer who pulled Shawn over said the stop was initiated due to the Stay at Home Ordinance, according to a police report filed in court. Shawn was 18 years old at the time and subject to the curfew that mandated that all people 18 and older stay home between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Shawn was stopped at 9:20 p.m. — more than an hour before curfew began — and while making a trip based on a court order — an exception covered by the county’s stay at home order.

Still, the city accused Shawn of violating the county’s order in the police report and changed it to a violation of the curfew on the municipal court document.

Neither were justified, Shawn’s attorneys said, calling it an outrage.

“Too many places in Texas and in the community here in the Valley, they’re policing for profit and we want to shine a spotlight on this abusive power,” Garza said.

The Texas Civil Rights Project believes the city of Progreso pulled people over as part of an abusive tactic.

“The policy in Progreso was to pull over as many people as possible, take away their cars, put their cars in impound where you had to pay to get them back and charging them the maximum amount allowed under the law, all at a time when the court was being constantly closed … to make it difficult to clear these fines,” Garza explained.

Although not everyone affected stepped forward to be part of the lawsuit, many are still feeling the effects of unpaid fees that have accumulated as a result of the citations Progreso police handed out.

Some are unable to register their cars after getting on the county’s scofflaw list, which prohibits drivers with unpaid traffic fines from obtaining their vehicle registration. Others, like Shawn, had debt collectors calling to collect levied fines.

The municipal court agreed to dismiss the case against Shawn, but the Texas Civil Right Project’s lawsuit is seeking accountability.

“What we’re seeing here is that these practices existed before the pandemic, and if we don’t do anything about it now, they’ll continue to persist in a different way,” Garza said.

The lawsuit is asking for injunctive relief to stop the effects of the policy.

“We want to be able to get the city to address the harm done to everybody affected by the abuse of power, and it starts with dismissing all these improperly charged cases,” Garza said.

Hinojosa dismissed the city’s motion to dismiss the case on Wednesday and gave the parties four months for discovery.

The Texas Civil Rights Project is prepared to take the case to a jury trial and is also searching for others with similar experiences, even if they’re not Progreso residents.

“If this sounds familiar to them, if a family member or anybody has gone through something like this during the early days of the pandemic, where they were arrested and didn’t seem right, we have an email set up,” Garza said.

The public can contact them through email at [email protected]. A hotline was also set up: (956) 731-0232.