N.M. man sentenced for violating criminal-libel law
FARMINGTON, N.M. — A man convicted of the seldom-used charge of criminal libel was sentenced to 360 days in jail on that charge and charges of harassment and stalking, but the judge suspended the sentence.
Magistrate William Vincent also ordered Juan Mata yesterday to pay $114 in court costs and perform 50 hours of community service.
Mata’s attorney, Dennis Montoya of Albuquerque, filed an appeal of the convictions in district court in nearby Aztec immediately after sentencing.
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.
Montoya has contended the city vindictively charged Mata after he filed a civil rights lawsuit against Farmington, Briseno and four other officers.
Montoya asked Vincent to vacate Mata’s convictions.
“I told the judge that this was his opportunity to do the right thing and to demonstrate to the whole country that the First Amendment was alive and well in Farmington,” Montoya said in a telephone conversation with the Associated Press.
Mata should have never been convicted Aug. 8 because the charges violate free-speech rights, the attorney said.
Assistant City Attorney William Cooke said yesterday he could not comment because the matter was under appeal.
Cooke has said in the past that Mata engaged in a personal vendetta.
“I’m extremely thankful we live in a country with free speech, but certain kinds of speech are not free,” Cooke said when Mata was convicted.
Briseno had testified that Mata’s actions were aimed at destroying his credibility, and said the man frightened him. Mata videotaped Briseno when the officer drove by Mata’s home, and drove by as the officer issued tickets elsewhere.
Montoya, however, alleged Mata has been subjected to harassment by Farmington police — most recently the night of Oct. 17, when he and his young nephew were followed home from shopping.
The department’s public affairs officer, Lt. Robert Miller, said Mata had not filed a complaint, “so I’m not really sure what he’s complaining about.”
The harassment and stalking charges stemmed from the petition and picketing. Montoya has said the criminal-libel charge referred to a letter written by another lawyer for Mata, Ron Adamson, which Mata didn’t even sign. The letter accused Briseno of 11 felonies and asked the department to investigate an alleged action by Briseno against Mata last year.
“Mr. Mata is in a Catch-22 situation,” Montoya said yesterday. “He was prosecuted for filing the equivalent of an internal affairs complaint. … No one should have to be in this position in his own community and in his own home.”