Justice

What The Supreme Court Has To Say About Sandra Bland’s Arrest

CREDIT: Screenshot from police dashboard camera

Newly released video of Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia arresting Sandra Bland, an African American woman who was found dead in her jail cell three days later, shows the officer rapidly escalating a minor argument over a cigarette into a forcible arrest. Shortly after Encinia brings Bland a warning citation for changing lanes without signaling, he asks her to extinguish her cigarette. When Bland declines to do so, the officer opens her door and tries to physically remove her from her car. He eventually draws what appears to be a stun gun and screams at Bland that he will “light you up” if she does not exit the vehicle.

Just a few minutes later, Bland is in handcuffs and off camera. When Encinia instructs her to “wait right here,” she informs him that she “can’t go nowhere with a fucking knee on my back.”

After watching the video, Texas state Sen. Royce West (D) commented that “once you see what occurred, you will probably agree with me she did not deserve to be placed in custody.” It is likely that the United States Supreme Court would also agree. Indeed, Trooper Encinia’s conduct probably violates a decision the Supreme Court handed down just last April.

Rodriguez v. United States held that police could not extend the length of a routine traffic stop, even for just a few minutes, absent a safety related concern or reasonable suspicion to believe that the driver may have committed an additional crime. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained in the opinion of the Court, “[t]he tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s ‘mission’ — to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop, and attend to related safety concerns.” A police stop “may ‘last no longer than is necessary to effectuate th[at] purpose.’ Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are — or reasonably should have been — completed.”

By the time Encinia asks Bland to put out her cigarette, the “mission” of his encounter with Bland is almost at completion. He has already written the citation and brought it to Bland. While she is being handcuffed, Bland even indicates that she was “trying to sign the fucking ticket” before Encinia tried to pull her out of her car. Had the officer not decided to extend the length of the stop over the argument about the cigarette, it is likely that Bland would have been sent on her way very shortly after she declined to extinguish her cigarette.

Under Rodriguez, a stop may be extended if the officer uncovers new evidence that provides reasonable suspicion that a suspect has committed some other crime, but cigarette smoking is legal so that could not have justified extending the length of the stop. That leaves one other possible justification: an officer may extend a stop to address “safety concerns” that arise out of an encounter with a suspect. Thus, if Bland’s survivors challenge this arrest in court, Encinia might try to argue that the cigarette presented a potential safety concern — perhaps he thought that she might try to use it as a weapon and burn him.

A search of the Lexis database of court decisions found no federal or state court cases that would bind a Texas officer which answers the question of whether a lit cigarette presents the kind of safety concern relevant to the Supreme Court’s decision in Rodriguez. Nevertheless, there are two reasons why a court should be skeptical if Encinia claims that he decided to extend and escalate his confrontation with Bland because of safety concerns related to the cigarette.

The first is just how rapidly Encinia escalated this confrontation. The officer never gives Bland a direct order to extinguish the cigarette — his exact words to her are “you mind putting out your cigarette, please, if you don’t mind?” So, even if Encinia did have the lawful authority to demand that she put out the cigarette, Bland reasonably could have viewed this as a request that she could refuse. When Bland did refuse, Encinia immediately orders her out of the car without taking the intermediate step of actually ordering her to put out the cigarette. This rapid escalation extended the length of the stop without a clear justification for doing so.

Additionally, Trooper Encinia did not mention the argument over the cigarette (or the fact that he pulled his stun gun) in his official incident report. If Encinia truly believed that the lit cigarette was a danger to his safety that offered a legal justification for his actions, then it is unlikely that he would not have mentioned it in the report.