For Sandra Bland, what began as a routine traffic stop ended in an apparent suicide. But was her arrest lawful under the Constitution?
Bland, 28, was pulled over by State Trooper Brian Encinia for switching lanes without signaling in Prairie View, Texas, on July 10. After running her license and insurance, Encinia returned to Bland’s car with a written warning. Encinia then asked Bland to put out her cigarette. Bland asked why she had to do that. That’s when Encinia asked Bland to get out of her car, and she did not immediately comply. Instead, she reached for her cell phone, and Encinia pulled out a Taser.
Authorities said Bland became “argumentative and uncooperative” and was taken into custody for assault on a public servant. She died three days later in a jail cell in Waller County.
According to Professor Jonathan Oberman – a professor of law and longtime director of the criminal defense clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law – three Supreme Court cases taken together may determine whether Encinia’s actions were legally justified.
The first is Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, a 2001 case in which the high court determined that it is lawful under the Fourth Amendment for a law enforcement officer to arrest a person who has been stopped for a routine traffic violation.
At first glance, the court’s holding in Atwater may appear to work against Bland: A police officer has the power to arrest, Encinia employed that power, game over. But, Oberman points out, it’s not actually that simple.
A key difference exists between the circumstances that led to Gail Atwater’s arrest and those seen in the dashcam video showing Bland’s arrest.
Atwater was pulled over by Officer Bart Turek in Lago Vista, Texas, while driving a pickup truck in March 1997. Atwater’s two young children were also in the vehicle, and none of them were wearing seatbelts. According to Atwater, Turek screamed at her through the driver’s-side window about the seatbelts, scaring her kids. When Atwater asked Turek to lower his voice, he announced she was “going to jail.” Atwater asked permission to take her children to a friend’s nearby home. Turek refused, handcuffing Atwater in front of them, and took her to the police station where she was booked and released on bond pending trial.
What factual differences are legally significant?
Under Atwater, Oberman explains, a police officer who pulls someone over for a traffic violation can do one of two things: he can either arrest the driver or he can issue a citation and walk away. In Atwater, the officer made the decision to arrest. Encinia, Oberman says, clearly chose option B.
“I think from watching the [Sandra Bland dashcam] video,” Oberman says, “it’s clear the officer made the other decision. [Encinia] made the decision to issue a citation.”
That difference, Oberman says, is the critical distinction between Bland’s arrest and the one in Atwater.
Enter Rodriguez v. United States, a case the court just decided in April, which posed the question: During a routine traffic stop, what duration is considered legally legitimate, and under what circumstances can that duration be lawfully extended?
In Rodriguez, the court said that once an officer decides to issue a citation – or a warning, as was the case with Bland – he’s obligated under the law to conclude the stop. Encinia didn’t. Rather, Oberman notes, he engaged with Bland, asking her to put out her cigarette.
That’s where Pennsylvania v. Mimms, a 1977 Supreme Court case, comes into play. In Mimms, the justices held that it is lawful under the Fourth Amendment for a police officer to order a person out of a car following a routine traffic stop if he fears for his safety.
Could Bland’s cigarette reasonably cause Encinia to fear for his safety?
Oberman says no legitimate fact-finder – jury or judge – would say so, and that's where the court's analysis -- in Oberman's estimation -- would end, likely resulting in a win for Bland.
Encinia seems to grow angry, Oberman says, because he gave Bland a directive and she challenged him. That’s when he extended the duration of the stop, which is illegal under Rodriquez: “A police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.
Or, as Oberman explains, the court held in Rodriguez that in the absence of a legitimate purpose to extend the duration of a traffic stop – without reasonable suspicion of another crime – “the constitutional basis for a stop has been extinguished.”