Another police interaction video went viral last week. This time it comes from the dash-mounted camera of a Texas State Trooper.
The video shows Sandra Bland, a black woman, being pulled over by white State Trooper, Brian Encina for allegedly failing to signal a lane change. What follows is an almost Orwellian-seeming exchange between an aggravated Bland and an aggressive Trooper. If you haven't seen the video yet, you can see it below.
As a criminal lawyer, I'm getting calls from friends around the state asking, "can he do that?" By and large the answer is, "yes." Which is why we should all take a moment to learn from Sandra Bland.
Know your rights: what to do if you've been pulled over for no reason
Generally speaking, each of us in the country has the right to freedom of movement. If we're walking down the street, a law enforcement officer has the same right as anybody to talk to you. But you have the right, same as with anyone, to keep on your way and ignore him.
That's not true though if an officer has "reasonable suspicion" that you are involved in a crime that has occurred, is occurring, or will soon occur. That crime can be something as serious as an armed robbery, or as minor as a traffic offense. In fact, ordinarily, police detentions (and that's an important word to know: "detention." It means a temporary restriction of movement; you're not free to go) begin with a traffic infraction.
Trooper Encina likely lacked reasonable suspicion to pull Bland over
Here, Trooper Encina probably didn't have reasonable suspicion to pull Sandra Bland over to begin with. And she seemed to know that. But you have to watch the video closely to see why. Trooper Encina repeatedly cites "failure to signal a lane change" as his reason for stopping Ms. Bland. But at one minute and fifty-six seconds into the video, Bland can be seen driving through an intersection where the road goes from one lane to two. She doesn't signal, but she doesn't change lanes either. So the traffic stop is bogus.
And Bland seems to know it. Early in the stop when she's explaining why she's frustrated, she tells Encina that she saw him behind her, and she got over to the right to let him pass. And instead she found herself detained.
So what happens to the officer? He should get in trouble for pulling her over for no reason, right? Wrong. The remedy for constitutional violations like this is something called the "exclusionary rule." It means that if a judge agrees with me that the officer lacked a constitutional reason for pulling Bland over, he can't use any evidence gathered afterward against her in court. So any case against her probably gets dismissed. But nothing happens to the officer. Usually he doesn't even get a reprimanded.
Bland could also file a lawsuit against the Trooper and the Department of Public Safety for money damages for the temporary deprivation of her freedom under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. They're tough cases to win though. And often claims for something like being pulled over for no reason never get filed.
So what should Bland have done? What should you do if you find yourself pulled over by the police without justification? Be polite. Assert your right to remain silent (politely), and remain silent. Remember, anything you say can, and will be used against you. For more information on Sandra Bland's case, and your rights against unreasonable stops, arrests, searches, seizures and uses of force by police, as well as your right to video-record police encounters, see my full blog post here.