(CN) – The 5th Circuit reinstated a lawsuit brought by a small-business owner in Texas, who accused two sheriff’s deputies of violating his free-speech rights by hassling him for posting a sign that warned customers about a sheriff’s checkpoint.
Jose Rodriguez owns Pepe’s General Store in San Elizario, a small community outside El Paso. In October 2006, the county sheriff’s department set up a roadblock near his store. Rodriguez said roadblocks cost him business, because some customers suspect him of colluding with law enforcement.
He also claimed deputies entered his store and harassed his customers. One deputy allegedly followed a boy into Rodriguez’s store, accused the boy of entering the store to evade the roadblock, and cited him for driving without proof of insurance.
Rodriguez said the incident angered him, so he posted a sign that read, in Spanish: “Be Careful. Precaution. Sheriff’s Checkpoint.”
Deputy Timothy Rutter allegedly told him that if he didn’t remove the sign, deputies would erect a roadblock in front of his store every day until he went out of business.
When he resisted, deputies issued him a citation for displaying “unauthorized signs.” The county district attorney prosecuted the case, but it was later dropped for lack of evidence.
Rodriguez sued Rutter and Deputy Jose Kluge, claiming they violated his free-speech rights under the First Amendment and the Texas Bill of Rights.
The deputies moved to dismiss the suit for insufficient pleading. They also accused Rodriguez of violating a state transportation code by posting his sign on a “road construction ahead” traffic sign that had been abandoned on Rodriguez’s property.
The district court granted their motion in part, concluding that Rodriguez’s speech wasn’t protected and that he failed to show an absence of probable cause.
The federal appeals court in New Orleans determined that the lower court had “impermissibly considered evidence outside the complaint and drew inferences in favor of the deputies.”
The court vacated dismissal of the case and remanded.