At the request of prosecutors, a judge on Wednesday dismissed the only criminal charge against the former Texas state trooper who arrested Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who was found hanging in a Texas jail in 2015. Her death set off national protests.
Brian Encinia, the state trooper who was officially fired last year, was cleared of a misdemeanor perjury charge on the condition that he give up his police credentials and pledge to never again work in law enforcement, according to court documents obtained by Texas media outlets and the Associated Press. He also agreed to never attempt to have the charge expunged.
Encinia was indicted in January of last year, accused of making a false statement under oath regarding the traffic stop that led to a confrontation and Bland’s arrest.
In July 2015, Bland had just moved from Illinois to Prairie View, Tex., for a new job when she was pulled over for failing to signal while changing lanes. The exchange quickly escalated after Encinia instructed Bland to put out her cigarette. When Bland questioned the request, Encinia ordered her to get out of the car.
Video footage showed Encinia trying to physically remove Encinia from the car, threatening her with a Taser and saying “I will light you up!” After Bland reportedly became combative, Encinia held her to the ground and arrested her.
Three days later she was found dead in a county jail. Her death was classified as suicide, a finding that was met with skepticism and outrage by her family and many others. A grand jury later decided not to indict anyone in connection with her death.
In a probable-cause affidavit, Encinia said he instructed Bland to exit the vehicle to conduct a safe traffic stop. A grand jury later found that statement to be false, saying in an indictment that further evidence showed Encinia “removed Sandra Bland from her vehicle because he was angry she would not put out her cigarette.” The perjury charge for the false statement could have led to a year in jail and a fine.
Phoebe Smith, one of the special prosecutors hired by the Waller County District Attorney to handle the case, expressed condolences to Bland’s family but said she decided to drop the charges to ensure a jury wouldn’t acquit Encinia, she told the Houston Chronicle.
“We dismissed it based on the fact that he permanently surrendered his license,” she said. “The bottom line is, we never wanted him to be a police officer again and we wanted to ensure that outcome. When you take a case in front of jury there’s always that risk.”
The decision to drop the charge was welcomed by the former state trooper’s lawyer, Chip Lewis, who said in a statement that “dismissal was the right thing to do.”
“Brian and his family appreciate the thoughtful review by the prosecutors,” Lewis said. “The Encinias will remain forever grateful to their family, friends and members of the law enforcement community for all their support.”
But it was yet another disappointment for Bland’s family members, who felt entirely caught off guard by the decision, according to their lawyer.
“The special prosecutors did not even reach out to them to let them know that this was in the works,” Cannon Lambert, a Chicago-based attorney for the family, told Texas news station ABC13. The family met with the special prosecutors more than a year and a half ago, he said.
“It’s a shame that they didn’t take the time to contact the family ahead of their decision to do what they said they would not do,” Lambert said. “They assured the family they would see this through. This is the reason why the community has a hard time trusting the system.”
Bland’s death, and the subsequent decision not to file any criminal charges, led to demonstrations across the country. Her name became a rallying cry at Black Lives Matter protests in the midst of a nationwide controversy over police treatment of African Americans.
It also prompted calls for criminal justice reforms in Texas. The state legislature passed the “Sandra Bland Act,” which requires independent investigations of jail deaths, mandates that “county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment” and “makes it easier for defendants to receive a personal bond if they have a mental illness or intellectual disability,” the Texas Tribune reported.
The measure will go into effect in September.
A sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat from Houston, released a statement saying prosecutors’ decision to drop the perjury charge against Encinia was “upsetting.”
“The trooper’s actions were the catalyst for Ms. Bland’s death, and his roughing up of Ms. Bland was unacceptable,” Coleman said. “I’m sorry to Ms. Bland’s family for how poorly Texas has treated their loved one. I hope Ms. Bland’s family is willing to continue to work with me to make sure that the injustices they continue to suffer do not happen to others. At least Mr. Encinia will no longer be able to be a peace officer in Texas, and do to another what he did to Ms. Bland. He nor anyone should be above the law.”
In September 2016, Bland’s family reached a $1.9 million settlement in a wrongful-death lawsuit against Encinia, Waller County and several of its employees. Gevena Reed-Veal, Bland’s mother, said that as part of the agreement, the county jail would make a series of changes, including improving staff training and adding emergency nurses at the jail.
Speaking with the Houston Chronicle Wednesday, Bland’s older sister Shante Needham expressed frustration with the fact that the former trooper’s case would not be going to trial. She recalled a meeting she and her mother had with Encinia’s prosecutors last year.
“In September, we were expecting to be in Texas sitting in the courtroom, but today they cut him a deal,” she said. “Why? Why? Why? Why did you cut him a deal when you sat in our faces and you seen our pain and you told us you were going to take it to court?”