The arrest of Sandra Bland on July 10 and her subsequent death three days later in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas, prompted immediate calls for an investigation into her alleged suicide. However, the case garnered even more nationwide attention when the Texas Department of Public Safety released this video of Bland’s traffic stop last Tuesday.
The video shows Bland being pulled over for a failure to signal, but it also shows Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia quickly escalating the situation because the 28-year-old woman understood her rights under the law. Bland has been somewhat unfairly criticized for her alleged attitude in dealing with Encinia during the stop, but nothing she said justified the state trooper’s inexplicable conduct.
Bland only told the trooper she was understandably irritated after Encinia asked for confirmation of this observation, and she was well within her rights to ask why she should have to honor a request to extinguish the cigarette she was smoking in her own car. It was at this point that the traffic stop spun wildly out of control and the trooper probably exceeded his legal authority.
This past April, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Rodriguez v. United States that “a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures.” In Bland’s case, the matter for which the stop was made was essentially at its conclusion as Encinia had written the citation and was preparing to bring it to Bland.
The only grounds for which Encinia might have been able to extend the duration of this stop would have been if he had a reasonable suspicion that Bland had committed some other crime. Of course, smoking in one’s automobile violates no law in Texas, and it is hard to imagine that the cigarette was viewed as a possible weapon since that confrontation was not even mentioned in Encinia’s incident report.
Unfortunately, what this incident really embodies is the way that certain police officers frequently abuse their authority and disregard an average person’s rights with total impunity. However, you should not assume that this type of encounter only happens in Texas. If you are pulled over for any kind of alleged traffic violation in the Las Vegas area, here are five things you should always remember:
- Keep Your Calm — Any traffic stop can be a stressful experience, but keep in mind that police officers have dangerous jobs. If you are vulgar or loud or confrontational, these types of actions can give any officer reason to feel threatened or challenged. No matter how upset you are about being pulled over, it is critical to keep your emotions in check and avoid lashing out against police.
- Admit Nothing — Exercise your Fifth Amendment privilege without making a point of saying that you know your rights. You do not have to admit to any wrongdoing. For example, it is in your best interest, when asked if you knew how fast you were going, to tell the officer that you are not going to answer that question.
- Sign the Ticket — There is a common misperception that refusing to sign a warning or traffic ticket is a refusal of guilt that could later lead to it being thrown out in court. This is incorrect. Signing a citation is an admission of nothing other than you promise to appear in court. Under Nevada Revised Statute § 171.177, an alleged offender must be taken without unnecessary delay before a magistrate if he or she is refuses to give a written promise to appear in court after being issued a misdemeanor citation.
- Refuse to Consent to Any Search — Exercise your Fourth Amendment rights when police officers ask to look in your automobile. Again, Rodriguez v. United States involved a police stop that exceeded the proper duration when an officer held the alleged offender for several minutes so a second officer with a drug-sniffing dog could conduct a search without reasonable suspicion. Police officers will frequently try to trick people by asking them whether they have something to hide, but the best response in these situations is to always ask, “Are you detaining me or am I free to go?” Try to avoid having any type of overwhelming odors within your car—primarily marijuana, but also air fresheners that are frequently used as covers for marijuana—as these types of scents are often cited by police as probable cause to search vehicles without consent (even when there was no evidence of such smells) and are more difficult to disprove in court.
- Ask for an Attorney — Exercise your Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel for your defense. You are under no obligation to say anything without a lawyer, and you should be sure to have legal representation any time you are being questioned by police.
If you follow these rules you can keep yourself safe, you can let the officer feel safe doing his/her job and you can protect your rights. However, should you be arrested, contact an experience criminal defense attorney in order to keep your rights protected.