#BlackLivesMatter: the movement seeking to shed light on America’s racial problem

From Michael Brown to Eric Garner to most recently Sandra Bland; the United States has a serious policing problem.

Photo by Light Brigading (Flickr).

Sandra Bland, the woman whose photo and name is posted across every social media website right now, is one of the latest victim to the current racial issue happening across America—police brutality in the black community.  As United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated “I do think that what has been an important part of the debate in Ms. Bland’s death has been the discussions that we have seen from community members and police leaders alike about the importance of training and deescalating incidents.”

every 28 hours a black individual is murdered by someone employed or protected by the government of the United States

Sandra Bland died in police custody on July 13, 2015.  She was found hanging by a plastic bag created noose in a cell at Texas Waller County Jail—where she was being held after a “failure to signal” motivated traffic stop on July 10, 2015.  Since then, there has been a massive debate about the circumstance surrounding Ms. Bland’s death stemming from a video released that captures her suspicious arrest.  Although Ms. Bland’s death is being investigated as a murder, her story is just one of many that highlight the police brutality debate in the black community and all around America.

Sandra Bland said it herself in a video posted back in April, “At the moment black lives matter. They matter.”  But it’s not just about the moment as the Black Lives Matter website declares “All #BlackLivesMatter.  This is Not a Moment, but a Movement.”  Highlighted by the movements website, every 28 hours a black individual is murdered by someone employed or protected by the government of the United States.  How is it that in a country with sincerely held rights that should facilitate justice, as enumerated in the Constitution, civil rights are not absolutely guaranteed to our black community?

Although the initial stop could have very well been racially motivated, under our laws, the stop was legal

Many are questioning the legality surrounding Sandra Bland’s arrest.  Although the initial stop could have very well been racially motivated, under our laws, the stop was legal.  The Fourth Amendment provides protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” with “seizures” being interpreted as a stop for the purposes of a Fourth Amendment analysis.  Therefore, as a general rule a police officer must have probable cause to initiate a traffic stop—although in some circumstances reasonable suspicion is sufficient.  However, subjective intentions play no role in the probable cause analysis of a stop.  As ruled by the United States Supreme Court in Whren v. United States, if a “reasonable officer in the same circumstances could have stopped the car for the suspected traffic violation,” then the stop is valid.  Effectively, this means that even if the trooper who pulled over Sandra Bland was racially motived, the stop was perfectly legal because a reasonable officer could have stopped the car for failure to signal.

After the initial stop, the Fourth Amendment is still very much intact.  Watching the video, the stop seems routine.  Asking for a license and insurance, along with questions of being in Texas and Sandra’s destination are all very normal inquiries that attach to a traffic stop.  However, it is once Trooper Encinia comes back to Ms. Bland’s car with the warning citation when everything goes wrong.

“authority for the seizure ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed”; making Trooper Encinia’s attempted seizure of Ms. Bland unlawful and consequently her arrest illegal

Sandra Bland’s arrest was not legal or justified.  Under Pennsylvania v. Mimms, an officer has an automatic right to ask the driver of a vehicle to get out of the car after a lawful stop.  The problem with the request (more so demand) from the Texan trooper is that he asked her after the traffic stop was completed—once the citation warning was given, as Sandra Bland is about to sign it, the lawful stop was over.  Thus, there is a key factual difference between the stop that occurred in Mimms and the stop that occurred with Sandra Bland—in Mimms the officer requested the driver to step out of the vehicle as soon as he approached the car to inquire into the driver’s identification; the Texan trooper asked Ms. Bland to get out of the car after he had successfully identified the driver and after he had issued the warning.

Additionally, under Arizona v. Johnson, “temporary seizure of driver and passengers ordinarily continues, and remains reasonable, for the duration of the stop,” even if the officer uses the stop to inquire into matters unrelated to the justification for the traffic stop so long as it does not “measurably extend” the duration of stop.  According to the video, it seemed as though the stop was essentially completed once Trooper Encinia goes to hand the warning citation to Ms. Bland.  However, everything goes wrong when he asked Sandra to put her cigarette out, which led to Trooper Encinia opening the driver-side door and demanding that Sandra get out of the car.  This attempt to “seize” Ms. Bland seems unreasonable, thus contrary to law, because it pushes the line of measurably extending the duration of the stop since the stop was nearly complete.

The lack of justification doesn’t stop there.  In order to arrest someone, a police officer must have probable cause, additional to the probable cause that justifies the traffic stop.   Trooper Encinia tells Ms. Bland that he is arresting her for resisting arrest.  Again, the problem is that in order to be arrested for resisting, you have to actually be resisting a lawful arrest.  From the video, it seems that the arrest is based on Sandra refusing to put out her cigarette, and maybe additionally refusing to get out of the car.  However, unless there is a Texas state law on police safety tied to not smoking during a traffic stop, Sandra had the right to refuse the demands.  Therefore, under Rodriguez v. United States, a Supreme Court decision from April 2015, “authority for the seizure ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed”; making Trooper Encinia’s attempted seizure of Ms. Bland unlawful and consequently her arrest illegal.

[An] expansive review may be exactly what our country needs in order to take preventative measures to stop police violence, instead of only having reactive responses every time one of our Black citizens dies

The police brutality that occurred with Sandra Bland, and many black citizens preceding this tragedy, is the very core of the national debate publicized by movements like Black Lives Matter.  There is an outcry for change.  Black Lives Matter calls for a comprehensive review by the Department of Justice of systematic abuses by local police departments.  This type of expansive review may be exactly what our country needs in order to take preventative measures to stop police violence, instead of only having reactive responses every time one of our Black citizens dies.

For now, Sandra Bland’s family will have to settle for the reactive.  Along with the current review by the FBI and Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis, Bland’s family has asked for the Department of Justice to investigate Sandra’s death.  Ms. Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, filed a federal lawsuit against Trooper Encinia and two Waller County Jail guards on Tuesday, August 4, 2015.  The lawsuit asks for accountability by the name parties for the ultimate death of Sandra—Trooper Encinia for unlawfully arresting and using unnecessary force and the two guards for not taking proper measures for suicidal prevention.

However, the lawsuit may encounter problems.  This past June, the Supreme Court shut down the notion of an Eighth Amendment right for suicide prevention in Taylor v. Barkes. The lawsuit was against Delaware jail officials for failure to safeguard Christopher Barkers from committing suicide while in custody, but all nine justices stated “No decision of this Court establishes a right to the proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols.”  At this point, the complaint does not refer to Sandra’s death as a suicide, but rather as a death that could have been prevented if not for the actions of Trooper Encinia and the Waller County Jail, which may help the Bland family.

How many more Michael Browns, Eric Garners, Freddie Grays, or Sandra Blands will it take for proactive responses to occur is uncertain.  What is a certainty—it is very, very dangerous to be a black person in the United States right now.

Ana Hopper, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus
About Ana Hopper, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus (33 Articles)
Ana Hopper is a 2016 Campbell Law graduate and served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. She is originally from Winston-Salem and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Sociology. The summer following her first year of law school, Ana worked as a research assistant for Professor Amy Flanary-Smith. Ana also interned at the Criminal Appellate Section of the Department of Justice her second year, and at the New Hanover District Attorney's Office as an intern the summer before her third year. She served as a Legal Research and Writing Scholar, Vice President of BLSA, and Community Chair of Lambda during her time at Campbell.
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