Sandra Bland: What Happened and Who's to Blame?

On July 10, 2015, Texas state trooper Brian Encina stopped Sandra Bland for failing to signal a lane change. Three days later, Bland was found dead in her cell at the Waller County jail.

So how did a minor traffic infraction turn into a jailhouse death? That is a question many are struggling to answer, from U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis, who has appointed a committee of outside prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys to investigate Bland’s death.

Based on a review of the dashcam video of the stop, here is the key question from a criminal defense attorney’s perspective:

What are a citizen’s rights during a routine traffic stop?

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. This means that police may not stop you without a reasonable suspicion that you have violated the law. In this case, Bland was stopped for failing to signal a lane change. She provided the information requested by the officer, so she followed the law. The officer issued the citation, which should have been the end of it. However, we know that this was not the case.

The question is, what was the officer’s legal reason for continuing her detention? Not putting out her cigarette at the officer’s request is not illegal. Being irritated about a traffic stop is not illegal. Her detention should have ended at the point the officer issued the citation. Based on the video, there appears to be no lawful basis for the officer to order her out of her car or to arrest her for refusing to comply with what might be argued were his unlawful orders.

Citizens do have the right to refuse to obey unlawful orders by police officers. From a criminal defense attorney’s viewpoint, the officer was giving an unlawful order. When she didn’t comply, he escalated the situation. There doesn’t appear to be any reason — other than that he was irritated by her attitude — for him to threaten her with a Taser or put his hands on her. He clearly violated professional conduct, which has been acknowledged by the Texas Department of Safety.

Bland’s death at the Waller County jail has been ruled a suicide and investigations into her death are being conducted by state and federal agencies. The question is, why was she in jail in the first place? It can be argued that she was there because of an unlawful arrest stemming from the unprofessional conduct of the arresting officer.

Whether you are facing a serious federal white-collar prosecution, a state murder charge, or misdemeanor charges, The Cogdell Law Firm has the experience, knowledge and reputation you want for your legal team. When results matter most, contact Dan Cogdell at (713) 426-2244 or dan@cogdell-law.com.

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