Sandra Bland was irritated. She hadn’t yet been in Texas for two days and already a police officer was pulling her over.
“I was trying to get out of the way; you were speeding up tailing me, so I moved over and you stopped me,” Bland told state trooper Brian Encinia, the annoyance evident in her voice. “So yeah, I am a little irritated.”
Encinia had run her licence and plates and returned to the vehicle, warning in hand.
Then came this:
“Would you mind putting out your cigarette, please?” Encinia said.
“I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?” Bland answered.
“Well, you can step on out now,” Encinia said.
Within seconds, the two were locked in a physical confrontation — first inside the vehicle, then on the side of the road.
No one is required by law to be happy about being pulled over and ticketed; that much is true.
But are you required to comply with every order given to you by a police officer?
“It’s not unusual for an officer to ask someone to put out their cigarette or hang up their phone, that sort of thing,” said attorney Margo Frasier, the police monitor for Austin, Texas. “The question becomes whether they can make you do it.”
Frasier, the former sheriff of Texas’s Travis County, added: “If you are in your own vehicle — assuming it’s a tobacco cigarette — and the officer asks you to put it out, I don’t know of any statute that would require you to do it.”
At that moment, when Bland refused to put out the cigarette, the interaction became a confrontation.
“It seems very clear that the escalation — that her refusal to do what he said — prompted him to order her out of the car,” said Michele Deitch, an attorney and a criminal justice lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin.
That’s when things get a little more complicated.
When it comes to a law enforcement officer ordering a person out of a vehicle during a traffic stop,
But in this instance, Frasier said, that would be a difficult case to make. “You want to give the benefit of the doubt to the officer,” she said of Encinia, “but I’m not sure, other than the fact that [Bland] wouldn’t put out her cigarette, what would be perceived as a safety issue.”
Once out of the car, however, an officer can handcuff someone during a traffic stop; it’s also justified under the premise of safety.
If that person resists arrest for any reason, a different set of rules takes over.
According to Texas law, someone can be charged with resisting arrest regardless of whether or not the arrest or search was legal.
From Texas code:
Sec. 38.03. RESISTING ARREST, SEARCH, OR TRANSPORTATION. (a) A person commits an offense if he intentionally prevents or obstructs a person he knows is a peace officer or a person acting in a peace officer’s presence and at his direction from effecting an arrest, search, or transportation of the actor or another by using force against the peace officer or another.
(b) It is no defense to prosecution under this section that the arrest or search was unlawful.
That is essentially how a traffic stop for failing to signal during a lane change can turn into an arrest for assaulting an officer.
Yet, according to Texas state Sen. Royce West, the situation should never have come to that.
“He was issuing her a warning,” West said to The Washington Post on Wednesday. “Therefore, if he had already made up his mind that he was going to issue a warning, there was no reason to pull her out of the car and all that other stuff.”
West added that Encinia “lost his composure and, as a result of that, his professionalism and what he was taught as it relates to interacting with citizens.”
Bland — a 28-year-old African American woman — died in a county jail cell on July 13, three days after the traffic stop. She had been charged with assault on a public servant.
Her death was classified as suicide by hanging, but news of the suicide — which came amid growing outrage over police interactions with African Americans — has been met with skepticism by those who knew Bland and even others who didn’t.
Abby Ohlheiser contributed to this report.