Breaking down the legal issues in Sandra Bland’s arrest

July 23, 2015

[This story contains graphic language.]

On July 10 Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman, was pulled over by a state trooper in Prairie View, Texas, after allegedly failing to use a turn signal. The confrontation turned violent, and Bland was arrested and charged with assaulting an officer. She died three days later in her jail cell, after hanging herself.

On Tuesday authorities in Texas released dashboard camera footage showing the arrest.


The video shows how the traffic stop quickly escalated. After pulling Bland over, the state trooper, Brian Encinia, who is white, wrote up a ticket and returned to Bland’s car. He then asked Bland to put out her cigarette.

“I’m in my own car. I don’t have to put out my cigarette,” Bland said.

Encinia ordered Bland out of her car.

When she refused he shouted: “I’m going to yank you out.”

Encinia then reached into the car to remove Bland, who refused to cooperate. Encinia called for backup. After a struggle with Bland, he pulled out a Taser and screamed: “I will light you up.”

Out of view of the dashboard camera, Bland can be heard screaming: “You’re about to break my wrist. Can you stop?” as Encinia and a female officer restrain her.

At one point Encinia says: “When you pull away from me, you are resisting arrest.”

Bland says: “You just slammed me. You knocked my head on the ground. I got epilepsy, you motherfucker.”

Encinia replies: “Good, good.”

The department has since placed Encinia on administrative duty because he violated arrest protocol. The F.B.I. and Texas’ Department of Public Safety are investigating Bland’s death.

Reuters spoke with Lisa Wayne, a criminal defense lawyer in Colorado, to understand the legal aspects of Bland’s arrest.

Do arrest procedures vary by county or state?

Dictated by the U.S. Constitution, the law in terms of police contact with a citizen doesn’t vary. State law may be construed more strictly than federal law, but it cannot be less than what federal law dictates. For example, the law requires that police must have a reasonable suspicion of a crime in order to make contact with a citizen. The state cannot get rid of this requirement and say police do not have to have any reason for contact. Once contact becomes an actual arrest, the protocol may vary from state to state, county to county. But the law governing actual contact with a citizen doesn’t vary.

The law varies based on whether you’re in the street or in your car. If you’re walking down the street and an officer asks you for your name and ID, you have the right to ask why they are asking for that information. If a police officer can justify that contact, as a citizen in this country you have to provide that information. You have a right to ask them why. If they can’t answer that, then you have a right to walk away.

If you’re pulled over in your car, it has to be for some kind of violation. It’s usually a traffic violation. A police officer has a right to pull you over, ask for your ID and insurance information. Under the law, you have to provide those if you’re the driver. You can ask the officer why you’ve been pulled over. Under the law, the officer should tell you what the violation is.

Do you need to comply with a police demand to put out your cigarette?

There is no law that would require you to put out your cigarette. When we have contact with the police, there are ways to escalate and de-escalate the situation. Bland clearly was annoyed that the trooper was asking her to do that.

A hypothetical question, not related to Bland’s arrest: Do you need to comply with a police demand to get off your phone?

You have the right to film, photograph or record law enforcement when you’re in a public space. You have the right to videotape when it doesn’t interfere or obstruct from your detention or arrest. The ACLU advises people to avoid initiating an argument with an officer or doing anything that the officer could perceive as a physical threat or resistance. If an officer thinks he is under physical threat he can detain you immediately.

The ACLU is developing an app, the “Mobile Justice App,” that allows you to put your phone on and actually videotape the incident.

Do you need to comply with a police demand to get out of your car?

Not unless it’s related to the violation. If a police officer smells alcohol on your breath, he or she can ask you to get out of the car. If you’ve been pulled over for a turn signal violation, there’s no reason to ask you to get out of the car unless there’s something additional in that interaction that rises to the level of probable cause, such as an officer seeing a baggie of pot in the car, or something else that gives rise to a crime.

In what situation is it appropriate for an officer to handcuff someone?

Once you’re under arrest you can be handcuffed. Reasonable suspicion by an officer is a lower standard for arrest, and it’s justification for an officer to pull you over. To handcuff you it has to rise to probable cause, which is a higher standard, and allows an officer to detain and arrest you. You can’t be arrested for a non-jailable offense.

Why do you think people aren’t more aware of their rights in these kinds of situations?

It’s kind of like Miranda rights. We’ve all heard them. The problem is that in the real world when contact is made with a police officer, it’s intimidating for anyone. That’s part of power and authority and the average person complies with that. We know we have these rights and putting them in action and actually using them is a different thing. Putting them in action is intimidating.






We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Some points that don’t come to light in this analysis…

-Did he cause her to change lanes by accelerating toward her from behind?

-Did he then use this as a lame excuse to pull her over?

-Did he sound all polite until he ran her license?

-After running her license, did he then go back to the car and try to antagonize her in order to suit his agenda of false arrest, false imprisonment, and extortion?

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

When a police officer gives you an order you obey..period !!

You can always sue or complain and there are many legal ways to punish an officer if they broke the law, resisting and arguing during he encounter is NOT the wise choice.

Posted by nuffsaid99 | Report as abusive

The main problem is that the police think their badge gives them rights above the the law. After being abused and getting an unwarranted arrest, we, the lowly citizen, are released. That type of excess over actual law is of no comfort to the person having their rights violated. All we can do is comply and hope to be on our way with a warning. Police no longer serve or protect.

Posted by saturnman | Report as abusive

There was nothing in the video to show that the woman was aggressive in any way.
She (I feel) had the right to remain in her car while smoking and the officer did in fact use excessive force

Posted by Kris1234 | Report as abusive

Probably not the best idea to have a tech writer covering legal topics. Errors in fact and law here Please don’t rely on journalists as a basis for information used in decisions you make about your interaction with the police.

Posted by Ndogg | Report as abusive

Yes the best strategy is always say yes sir no sir when an Individual has the power to arrest or Taser you (and the initial respect of person in uniform).
In light of all that has been happening here in the states with white Police and African American suspects this woman naturally had fear and a bit of defensiveness in her situation. Once he ran her license and wrote her a ticket (?) he should have just let her go. It was unnecessary for him to tell her to put our her cigarette, for that is where the power struggle escalated. A big part of this story is why this woman was in jail for 2-3 nights?

Posted by mmcg | Report as abusive

America became an inhumane police state. American Govt has no right to blame China for imprisoning a few political activists/revolutionists ; while they themselves JAIL a person for THREE days for not signaling a lane change. Where is humanity?
In China arrested people are able to vote in a couple of years after the arrest; Americans got rid off black voting population by imprisoning or killing them on any possible occasion.
Yesterday at the Revere beach(Boston) teenagers were playing in the water. One of the guys’ underwear was stolen as a joke. The guy was afraid to get out of the water naked. In the process of trying to get his underwear back, police ARRESTED him and handcuffed him. 18 yo! It was just a foolish teenager game. Now his life is ruined and he will be registered as a sex offender who will never be able to vote. Before teaching other counties how to live, mind your own business , inhumane USA.

Posted by JustBeHuman | Report as abusive

Just because they are the police doe not give them the right to be tyrannical. We Have a construction and a right to not be harassed. This is not Russia, Nazi Germany or China. the police are there to protect and serve and paid by my tax dollars, therefor my employee. Comments like do what the cop tells you period just erodes what our forefathers grandfathers, and my father fought for, the right to be free from persecution.

Posted by stevie1 | Report as abusive

This cop was an idiot. “You are being arrested for resisting arrest.”

Huh? Government has too much power. Cops are the clearest illustration of this.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

“Do you need to comply with a police demand to get out of your car?”

I’d be careful here. The Supreme Court in Pennsylvania v. Mimms 434 U.S. 106 (1977) stated that as long as the car was legally stopped, you have to comply with the officer and exit your vehicle (this also gives them the authority to pat you down). See more at:  /us/434/106/case.html

In short, as there was cause to stop Ms. Bland, Officer Encinia was legally authorized to order her out. The moment she refused (under Texas law) she was resisting arrest.

Posted by thompsonspoint | Report as abusive

“You can’t be arrested for a non-jailable offense.” This is not true. In 2001, SCOTUS decided the case of Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318, holding that “If an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed even a very minor criminal offense in his presence, he may, without violating the Fourth Amendment, arrest the offender.” Atwater was arrested after being pulled over for violating a TX law requiring the use of seatbelts, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $25-50.

Posted by commentnm | Report as abusive

The final question, I think, is answered by the incident itself. “Why do you think people aren’t more aware of their rights in these kinds of situations?” It’s not that people don’t know their rights, this woman appeared to. But, that people are justifiably afraid to insist that their rights not be violated for fear of the confrontation that sometimes ensues from their insistence. Case in point!

Posted by jordisnowman | Report as abusive

The police state state needs to be dismantled. Vote out anyone who continues to fund or encourage growth of the police state. Eliminate any special protections encoded into the legal system for judges, police, and prosecutors.

Posted by M_C_McBride | Report as abusive

she isnt being pulled over in the above video, she is being kidnapped and threatened with a tazer so she moves out of camera view, what do you do then?

Posted by modurhead | Report as abusive

Officer Encinia missed an opportunity. The tow-truck driver clearly did not signal as he pulled into traffic. My prayers go out to Ms. Bland’s family, and my heart breaks for the divide that seems to be growing in our nation.

Posted by NorthernLights1 | Report as abusive

What, if any, has been taken on the cop who is involved in this incident?

Posted by thulikan | Report as abusive

This young woman, Sandra Bland, did not have to die in jail and my thoughts and prayers are for her family who are grieving at this moment. This could be the case of an older man being offended by a young defiant woman; then add the racial component; then add the slow and methodical militarization of the nation’s police forces and you have a bad situation. There is a reason why countries don’t employ their military to police their citizens. The public, unlike soldiers, don’t comply to direct orders immediately. They are slow and typically non-compliant with authority, any authority and usually law enforcement are trained to deal with this. How does one tell their children that their aunt, cousin, sister died in some remote jail cell after being arrested for failing to use her turn signal on her car. She died alone, in complete despair and we are told she took her own life. She was going to a new job and she was excited about that. I’m sure many can cite legal rulings and case precedents but what does your common sense tell you? Your sense of righteousness, fairness, equanimity, and a sense of proportion in this matter and many similar incidences? Nevertheless, I will remember you Sandra Bland. Freedom and justice for ALL was the promise handed down to all of us, including Sandra Bland; let’s not squander that gift. How does that phrase go again…”God bless America and crown thy good with brotherhood.”

Posted by Obeekonobee | Report as abusive

He was done with the stop. Had no reason and no authority to demand that she put out her cigarette (in her own car) then escalate to such a crazy unprofessional degree. She wanted to stay in the car and just go. And legally she had the right. The stop was over. “You are being arrested for resisting arrest.” Okay….

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive


You are dishonest. You wrote, “When she refused he shouted: “I’m going to yank you out.”

That is not what happened. Even with the video posted on your site you blatantly oversimplified what happened. Poor blogging

Posted by StEwPiDMonkey | Report as abusive

There is no law that would require you to put out your cigarette

I see no valid reason for the arrest at all. The officer let ego get the best of him. Makes me suspicious of whether she really made the comments about suicide or if she hung herself. Likely we will never know.

Posted by PappaBear | Report as abusive