The quest to see law enforcement held responsible in the treatment of Sandra Bland last summer will carry over into 2016 for her family and their supporters, now that a grand jury in Texas has decided against criminally charging anyone who last saw her alive where she was jailed after a routine traffic stop. The death of Bland, a 28-year-old African-American who traveled from Illinois to Texas in July to accept a job at a university in Waller County, reignited a national movement around issues of excessive force against minorities after she boldly asserted her right to question the state trooper who eventually threatened her with force.
But what might be an ordinary traffic offense punishable by a ticket in other states is actually criminal activity that allows for arrests in Texas, legal experts said. Whether charges are filed against Brian Encinia, the trooper, could come down to a grand jury’s understanding of the legal standard for reasonable uses of force to get motorists to comply. Six months after Bland’s ordeal, some civil right advocates said they wanted the case to prompt reforms that clarify when officers should and should not make an arrest for noncompliance.
“You had a situation that went from being a traffic stop to something else,” said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington, D.C., nonpartisan organization seeking equal justice for minorities. “The police officer’s first mistake was allowing it to escalate the way it did.”
Although Texas state law somewhat defines what is reasonable police conduct to force compliance, Greenbaum said complications could arise for the grand jurors when they are considering critical pieces evidence against Encinia -- not in the least, a dashboard video that shows most of the trooper’s interaction with Bland. “You don’t have her being able to tell her side of the story and then you have what might have been the key portion of the incident not on video tape,” he said.
Encinia pulled Bland's vehicle over July 10 after she allegedly failed to signal a lane change. But Bland’s responses seemed to suggest to Encinia that she was intent on being noncompliant, prompting his change in approach. The trooper eventually ordered Bland out her car in part because she refused to extinguish the cigarette she was smoking during the traffic stop.
The encounter quickly escalated to Encinia threatening to pull Bland out of the car and to “light you up” with a Taser stun gun that he had trained on her through an open car door. Although she complied with his order to exit her car, there are only audio recordings of the moment Bland allegedly resisted arrest and assaulted the trooper off-camera. Encinia claimed Bland elbowed and kicked him in the shins where he and another trooper placed her under arrest.
Before Bland could post bail on charges related to her encounter with Encinia, she was found dead, hanging from her cell from a clear plastic bag that had been tied into a slipknot, authorities said. Bland’s family has filed a lawsuit against the trooper and other people they claimed are responsible for her death – a judge in Texas set a hearing date in 2017.
Months before the initial grand jury proceedings, Bland’s name was swept up in the national “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name” social justice movements that called attention to police brutality incidents against women of color. Following the release of video of Bland’s traffic stop, the American Civil Liberties Union said it raised “serious concerns” about the violation of Bland’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. As protesters called for prosecution of Encinia, as well as an investigation into alleged foul play related to Bland’s suicide, national political leaders spoke out about her case as a symptom of a flawed criminal justice system.
This woman didn't kill herself. Smh. https://t.co/vxCd1AJTbF
— NICKI MINAJ (@NICKIMINAJ) December 22, 2015
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders reacted Monday to the news that jailers would not face charges in the case. “Sandra Bland should not have died while in police custody,” read a statement from the candidate in which he called for unspecified reforms. “There's no doubt in my mind that she, like too many African-Americans who die in police custody, would be alive today if she were a white woman.”
In July, Hillary Clinton called Bland’s death “heartbreaking,” during a campaign stop in South Carolina. “And that’s why I think it is essential that we all stand up and say loudly and clearly, ‘Yes, black lives matter.’ And we all have a responsibility to face these hard truths of race and justice honestly and directly,” she said, according to media reports.
Melissa Hamilton, former police and corrections officer in Texas who now teaches criminal law at the University of Houston Law Center, said advocates who have spoken out about Bland’s case “often get the law wrong on this.” U.S. Supreme Court decisions that affirm constitutional law regulate police conduct during traffic stops, Hamilton said.
“Assuming that Sandra had committed a traffic offense, the officer from the first moment [he saw the offense] had the right to make a custodial arrest,” she said, referring to the type of detainment that allows police to take control of a scene and ensure he or her safety and the safety of others. So Encinia’s request that Bland put out her cigarette and exit her vehicle, as well as the basis for the arrest, was legal under state law.
“That’s relatively unique to Texas -- that most traffic offenses, even a minor violation, are considered criminal in nature,” Hamilton said.
The laws regulating police discretion in the use of force to prompt compliance isn’t so black and white, advocates and lawyers in Texas said. Under Texas law regulating criminal responsibility, a police officer “is justified in using force against another when and to the degree the [officer] reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to make or assist in making an arrest or search, or to prevent or assist in preventing escape after arrest.” An officer has to believe that the lawful arrest is warranted and identify him or herself as an authority, with a few exceptions, according to the statute.
If evidence supports an excessive force charge, then a grand jury can indict a police officer for violating the statute, experts said. But the court of public opinion often finds the officer is at fault even when the law fully validates his or her action, Hamilton said.
I think what’s been troublesome for police departments – it’s the use of discretion,” she said. “This kind of scenario harms good police-community relations.”
Grand jury processes also tend to do harm when they do not fit the public perception of police misconduct, said James Earl Teague, a criminal defense attorney in Aransas County, Texas, who has handled dozens of cases involving alleged civil rights violations. “The problem you have is that, in Texas, you have such wide latitude for how cases are presented,” Teague said. “Unless you just have a rouge grand jury, nine times out of 10 they are just going to rubber stamp what the prosecutor wants them to do. It’s a system that probably needs to be changed.”