Sandra Bland refused to get out of her car or put out her cigarette when a Texas state trooper asked her to last week, according to footage from the police dashcam released Tuesday. Her subsequent arrest, and her death three days later while in custody, have raised numerous questions, including what a person's rights are when they're stopped by police.
The 28-year-old black woman had just been pulled over and was about to be issued a ticket for failing to signal a lane change. When Bland didn’t exit her vehicle, the officer opened her car door without warning. This altercation eventually led to Bland’s arrest and she died three days later in her jail cell. Preliminary investigations said it was a suicide, but Bland's family has refuted the claim and there's another investigation in progress.
“Step out or I will remove you,” the officer, who BuzzFeed identified as Brian T. Encinia, repeatedly told her.
“You do not have the right to do that,” Bland said. “I refuse to talk to you other than to identify myself.”
During this exchange, Bland was exercising her Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, guaranteed to any American citizen under the Constitution. These two sets of laws prohibit unwarranted searches of personal property in many circumstances and grant a person the right to remain silent before or after an arrest.
The Fifth Amendment protects from self-incrimination and the person in question must clearly state that they are exercising this right. The driver’s only obligation is to identify his or her self to law enforcement and can refuse to answer any additional questions.
“Not wanting to talk is the motorist’s business,” Florida Trooper Larry Coggins told Car and Driver magazine. “He can tell us to pound sand. But not talking and not cooperating only make it worse.”
Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement can search personal property when they have obtained a search warrant, can prove that there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed, if they feel endangered, or if they have arrested the property’s owner.
In the case of traffic stops, an officer is allowed to search a vehicle -- but not the trunk-- if there is reason to believe the driver violated a traffic law. That said, searches are usually unwarranted if the offense is minor, like speeding or not signaling a lane change like in Bland’s case, according to FindLaw, an online legal database from Thomson Reuters.
When Bland initially refused to exit her vehicle, she had not yet been arrested. But traffic stops often fall under the category of temporary detentions, which have a different set of laws. Temporary detentions “require only reasonable suspicion,” according to FindLaw. This is defined as facts that would lead the law enforcement official to believe a crime was committed and needed to be further inspected.
“If police arrest for conduct arising out of a traffic stop, a search of your vehicle incident to arrest will usually be allowed,” according to FindLaw.
The video, released by the Texas Department of Public Safety, shows Encinia trying to put Bland in handcuffs once she gets out of her car. At one point, he pulls out a stun gun and says, “I will light you up.” When she questions the reason for her arrest, he shows her the traffic violation, calling it a "warning." The arrest, he said, was because she was uncooperative and “started creating a problem.”
However, some experts disagreed with Encinia’s response and the reason he gave for Bland’s arrest. "A person's attitude or their demeanor is not probable cause to make an arrest," Vernon Herron, a senior policy analyst with the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security, told the Associated Press.
Bland was brought to the Waller County jail, where she died in her cell three days later. The FBI is now supervising a Texas Rangers investigation into both Bland’s arrest and her time in the prison. Encinia was put on administrative leave.
“There’s a tragedy that happened here, regardless of who’s at fault,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said at a news conference on Tuesday. “A young lady lost her life. Everybody’s life matters.”