Texas Trooper Had No Right to Ask Sandra Bland to Put Out Her Cigarette

Human Rights

Asking a woman sitting in her vehicle to put out her cigarette during a traffic stop is not a reasonable request for a law enforcement officer to make, and Sandra Bland knew it.

“You mind putting out your cigarette, please?" Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia asked.

“I’m in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?” Bland said.

“Well, you can step on out now,” Encinia replied.

We know what happened next, based on a dashcam video released by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Bland was violently pulled out of her vehicle, thrown to the ground after she refused to obey Encinia's "lawful order" and jailed at Waller County Jail, where she was found dead three days later under suspicious circumstances.

But let’s address the cigarette issue. Did Encinia have a right to ask her to put it out? Eric Sanders, a former NYPD officer and civil rights attorney, told AlterNet flatly, “No.”

“What law was he enforcing?” Sanders, who spent nearly 13 years years with the NYPD, asked. “Is there a law against her smoking a cigarette in her own car? The police only have power through the Constitution, so can you explain to me what was the legal basis for that command? The government can only tell you, as a citizen, to do something that has legal authority. Without legal authority, they have nothing. So tell me what did she do?”

Eric Guster, a civil rights attorney in Birmingham, Ala., says officers can ask drivers to comply with reasonable commands. For example, a cop can ask a driver to turn off the ignition to his or her vehicle because not doing so can endanger the officer’s safety. If a car has a lot of people in it, the officer can ask everyone to raise their hands so he or she can see them. The officer can also ask someone to turn on his or her car lights if the inside of the vehicle is dark.

After reviewing the video, Guster says Encinia’s request was far from reasonable.

“I just don’t think so,” he told AlterNet. “He wrote the ticket already. She said, ‘Give me the ticket.’ The officer had no reason to tell her anything else but give her the ticket and walk away. There can be a thin line about what is a legal command, but under these circumstances, I just don’t see what the officer did was reasonable.”

The Houston Chronicle published a report outlining Texas-specific rights officers have to stop a driver and when it is legal for the officer to ask passengers to exit the vehicle. None of the scenarios cited in the report suggest any wrongdoing on Bland’s part.

Walter Katz, a police oversight lawyer and monitor, wrote that Encinia escalated the situation after Bland accused him of speeding behind her, forcing her to switch lanes hastily without using her signal. Basically, she accused Encinia of creating the conditions that caused him to pull her over. He never explained the legality of his commands and Bland challenged why he didn’t.

“Sandra Bland failed the Attitude Test,” Katz wrote on his blog. “She refused to submit to authority in a way which satisfied the trooper. That was her greatest crime and one that we have seen far too often.”

The stop also failed the Constitution test. The Supreme Court ruled in April in Rodriguez vs. United States that police officers cannot prolong a traffic stop beyond the intended reason. In Bland's case, the stop was over when Encinia wrote Bland the ticket. He had no right to ask her anything else beyond that. Doing so violated her civil rights. 

For those who say Bland should have just shut her mouth and complied with the trooper's requests, there is no legal basis for such submission. There is no law in Texas, or anywhere else for that matter, that gives cops the right to arrest someone for mouthing off. As AlterNet previously reported, judges across the country are tossing disorderly conduct cases in which cops arrest people for cursing at them. The video makes it clear that Encinia didn’t like Bland challenging his authority.

Sanders believes that most situations in which a cop gets into an altercation with someone is due to the cop not keeping his cool.

“You represent the government, which means you are subject to the wrath of the people,” he said. “If you are a police officer out there and your feelings are getting hurt, you’re in the wrong business. You’re taught that in the academy. You know that intuitively. There are no personal feelings. If someone is yelling at you, they’re not yelling at you, they’re yelling at your uniform.”

That’s what Bland was clearly doing. Encinia was operating beyond the duties of his uniform and Bland dared to challenge the officer on it. In return, she was brutally arrested, jailed and later died.

Bland’s death is being investigated as a possible homicide by local authorities. But according to the video, it appears her arrest had much more to do with Brian Encinia’s ego and the way he overstepped his authority because she refused to put out her cigarette.

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