Questions continue to swirl around the July 10 traffic stop in Waller County, Texas that led to the death of 28-year old Sandra Bland. In fact, the more information about the case that is made public — from the video captured by the arresting officer's dashboard camera to the audio recordings of calls Bland made to friends and family prior to her death — the more questions crop up. But the one thing that shouldn’t be in question is whether Sandra Bland’s rights were violated during her encounter with officer Brian Encinia. For reasons still unclear, Bland's constitutional and civil rights were violated during her arrest that day, and as the video shows, Bland knew it. If you're wondering what your rights are during an encounter with police, the video of Sandra Bland's arrest offers several crucial lessons.
What should have been a routine traffic stop turned into a tragedy for Sandra Bland, as tensions quickly escalated between her and Texas state trooper Brian Encinia. As we can hear in the officer's dash cam video, Enicinia told Bland that he pulled her over for failing to signal before she changed lanes in front of him — even though it's unclear why he'd chosen to follow her in the first place. By the end of the video, Bland is on the ground and in police custody for assault, but it appears that Encinia had already made up his mind to arrest Bland when she exercised her right to question the traffic stop.
If you watch the video, it's clear that Bland is irritated by the traffic stop, but that's a normal, even predictable reaction most people would have to being pulled over by cops. The state trooper then makes the situation worse by making multiple unnecessary demands: He orders Bland to put out her cigarette, exit her vehicle, and get down on the ground, even though the video captures him admitting to another officer that "She never swung at me. She was just flailing, stomping around."
Bland knew that Encinia's actions were out of line, and she called him on it. In fact, there are several critical places where Bland clearly knew and exercised her rights, according to legal analysts. Here are six important points:
1. You Have The Right To Be Irritated When A Cop Pulls You Over
No one enjoys getting a ticket. You don't have to be happy about it. While he's supposed to be issuing Bland a simple traffic citation, Encinia asks if she's OK, and says that she seems irritated. CNN law enforcement analyst Cedric Alexander explained to reporter Ashley Fantz that the officer's first priority is safety. As long as the driver turns off their car, rolls down the window, and shows that they aren't reaching for anything, they are under no obligation to act friendly or upbeat.
2. You Can Smoke In Your Own Vehicle
Encinia then asks Bland if she would mind putting out her cigarette. That request was unnecessary and probably helped to escalate the situation, according to Texas Civil Rights Project Director Jim Harrington. Harrington told the Texas Standard, a nonprofit news website, that there was no reason for Encinia to make that request, and Bland didn't have to comply: "No, she doesn’t have to put out her cigarette. And you wonder why the officer is even bothering with that. This is part of his escalation of the whole event that unfolded, unfortunately."
3. The Officer Should Give A Reason For Asking You To Exit Your Car
When Encinia first asks Bland to get out of her car, he doesn't give any reason or explanation. According to Harrington: "He does not have the right to say 'get out of the car.' He has to express some reason. ‘I need to search your car,’ or, whatever; he needs to give a reason. He can’t just say ‘get out of the car’ for a traffic offense."
4. You Have The Right To Record Your Traffic Stop
As long as you aren't interfering with the officer's investigation, you have the right to record your encounter with the police. Harrington told the Texas Standard that Bland had every right to record the stop, but exercising that right might have helped fuel Encinia's irritation: "She has a right to [use her phone to record the incident]. But that’s another example where the officer perceives this as a challenge to his authority — and it further escalates the whole scenario."
5. Unless You Pose An Immediate Threat, The Officer Can't Pull You From Your Car During a Routine Traffic Stop
When Bland refused to put out her cigarette, Encinia responded by attempting to pull her out of her car, threatening to "yank" her out or "light" her with a taser. Unless Bland posed a threat to his immediate health or safety, the state trooper had no right to make her exit her vehicle, according to Harrington. Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg agreed with that assessment, telling the New York Times that "the motive for yanking her out seems to be her rude behavior."
6. Finally, If You're Under Arrest, You Have The Right To Know Why
Miranda Rights, anyone? It's common knowledge that you have the right to know when you're being placed under arrest, and the right to know why. But in the dashcam video, Officer Encinia demanded that Bland get out of her car, then — when she refused, saying that she wasn't under arrest — he said that she had been placed under arrest. What Encinia doesn't say is why.
Watching the dashcam video, it's clear that Bland knew her rights. What's unclear is why that knowledge appears to only escalate the situation. The most depressing part of the video is that it shows how knowing her rights— and frustrating a state trooper— seems to be what got Bland arrested.
Three days later, Bland was found dead in a Waller County jail cell. Originally ruled a suicide, Texas officials have since stated that Bland's death would be investigated as a murder. Details around her death are still unfolding, but what seems clear from the video is that Bland shouldn't have been in jail in the first place.
Images: Getty Images (3)