A Texas woman who sparked a heated debate about free speech is now considering filing a civil rights lawsuit against a sheriff who called her out on Facebook for her massive "Fuck Trump" truck decal. She has also since updated the decal to include the phrase "Fuck Troy Nehls," the sheriff.
Karen Fonseca, who lives in Houston, says she is used to getting pulled over for her giant, white sticker that boldly reads: "FUCK TRUMP AND FUCK YOU FOR VOTING FOR HIM." But on Monday, days after Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls showed up at her door and arrested her on an outstanding warrant, the 46-year-old says she feels her rights were violated.
"He messed with the wrong person," she said at a press conference on Monday, referring to Nehls, who in a now-deleted Facebook post said he was considering filing disorderly conduct charges against her for the Trump decal.
The day after Nehls posted the photo of her truck, Fonseca was arrested for possession and use of a fake identification in 2014, jail records show. She was released on a $1,500 bond later that evening.
A spokeswoman for the Fort Bend County Sheriff's office told BuzzFeed News that it received a tip last Wednesday "that there was an outstanding felony warrant" for the driver.
Fonseca said that she and her husband ordered the decal 11 months ago, telling reporters that was her and her husband's opinion and they "wanted to make a statement."
Flanked by her attorney, the mother of 12 said the sheriff "didn't think twice when he put me on blast on Facebook and involved my whole family...to gain some votes."
"People back down and don’t want to stand for what they believe in. That's why we are in the world we are in today," she continued, noting that she and her husband added the "Yeah..." and "Fuck Troy Nehls" portion of the decal after she got out of jail.
On Nov. 15, Nehls ignited a viral, heated debate about free speech after he posted a photo of the truck on Facebook, stating that he had "received numerous calls regarding the offensive display on this truck" and wanted to discuss it with the driver. Nehls said the local prosecutor would be "willing to accept disorderly conduct charges regarding it."
The post swept across social media, garnering more than 10,000 comments from people either chastising the sheriff for infringing upon free speech, or the truck driver for such an incendiary message.
"I voted for Trump. Fuck this sheriff. The first amendment applies to ALL Americans! I hope the truck owner sues the pants off of this clown," one person wrote. "Using a badge to intimidate people of different political persuasions is a disgrace to the office he holds, and he should be removed."
"I've seen this truck, and I would (be) pleased if the owner of this vehicle was prosecuted for disorderly conduct. My children saw this, and I was infuriated they were subjected to this offensive display," another said.
When asked what legal grounds the sheriff had to charge the driver, Nehls responded with a screenshot of Texas' definition of disorderly conduct: "A person uses abusive, indecent, profane, or vulgar language in a public place, and the language by its very utterance tends to incite an immediate breach of the peace."
District Attorney John Healey told the Houston Chronicle that he disagreed with the sheriff and his own prosecutor, saying that he did not "believe it was a prosecutable case based on the definition of disorderly conduct."
Nehls later deleted his Facebook post due to "hate messages he has been receiving towards his wife and children," the sheriff's office said in a statement.
“The objective of the post was to find the owner/driver of the truck and have a conversation with them in order to prevent a potential altercation between the truck driver and those offended by the message,” the office said. “Since the owner of the truck has been identified, the Sheriff took down the post. Due to the hate messages he has been receiving towards his wife and children, the Sheriff will not be commenting on the matter further.”
After the post ignited controversy, Nehls called a press conference Wednesday evening to explain and defend his position. While he said he supports freedom of speech, he expressed concern that the "Fuck you for voting for him" portion of the sticker "targeted individuals."
"That's the fine line we have here because anyone traveling down the road behind them and then they see that truck and they voted for him, that's where you can see a breach in the peace," the sheriff said.
Nehls also walked back his threat against Fonseca, saying that his office has "not threatened anybody with arrest. We have not written any citations." His office confirmed to BuzzFeed News on Thursday evening that it will not be charging the 46-year-old with disorderly conduct.
Brian Middleton, Fonseca's attorney, called the post an "abuse of authority.
"It is protected speech," he explained. "Anyone who has a sticker like that is within their rights. He acted like a cyber bully and threatened her with prosecution."
The American Civil Liberties Union also weighed in on the debate, telling the sheriff on Facebook that it's "Constitutional Law 101: You can't ban speech just because it has 'f@ck' in it. Hey truck owner, feel free to contact the ACLU of Texas."
As for his name now being on the back of her truck, Nehls told local station KPRC he was "not surprised" and "thinks it's disgusting."
His office also released lengthy statement after her news conference Monday afternoon:
Last week, I received complaints from Fort Bend County residents regarding the window sticker on her truck, which states, “F*** Trump, and F*** You for voting for him.” The residents informed me they were offended at the language displayed on the truck, and I asked for a photo. I received the photo of the truck with the sticker, but the photo failed to display the license plate number of the truck.
I asked my office to post the photo of the truck with the sticker on my “Sheriff Troy Nehls” Facebook page, and obscured the offensive language. The intent behind the post was to identify the owner of the truck with the intent on speaking with that person(s) and have a conversation with the owner regarding the complaints I received and a possible modification of the sticker. My post also included my office phone number.
As a result of the posting, we received information which helped us identify the owner of the truck. Once we identified the owner of the truck, we took down the post. As a result of the publicity, we also received information that Karen Fonseca was wanted on a Felony warrant pursuant to a grand jury indictment.
Once we verified the outstanding warrant, steps were taken to serve the warrant. This warrant was served in a professional manner and without publicity on the part of the Sheriff’s Office. It is to be noted that the case surrounding this warrant was not one investigated by the Sheriff’s Office; we only served the Felony warrant.
The facts in this case as I see them are that Karen Fonseca wanted to place her feelings into the public realm by driving around with an obscenity on her vehicle. She got just that -- much public recognition. This recognition did not cause her to be indicted by a grand jury for Felony Fraud (this happened back in August of 2017), but it did bring the subsequent warrant to our attention and we did our job by arresting her.
In the beginning of this incident, I was hopeful that the person driving around with an obscenity for full view of all (including children) would be reasonable and would be willing to talk about coming to an agreed solution that satisfied her 1st Amendment rights while respecting the rights of parents and others offended by this display of an obscenity.
Having heard her talk in the public since the beginning of this, I am now quite aware that no such hope for a calm and reasonable discussion exists with her. This is sad and I hope that in the end she can come to see that just because citizens may have the legal right to do something, it does not always make it the right thing to do.
Neither I nor the Sheriff’s Office will be issuing further statements concerning this matter as it relates to these now past events as it only serves to bring added publicity to this display of obscenity. - Sheriff Troy Nehls
Brianna Sacks is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
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