Sandra Bland Arrest Video Raises Questions About Traffic Stop Rights
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
By now, the dash cam video of the encounter between Texas state trooper Brian Encinia and the late Sandra Bland has gone viral.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BRIAN ENCINIA: You OK?
SANDRA BLAND: I'm waiting on. You - this is your job. I'm waiting on you, whatever you want me to...
ENCINIA: You seem very irritated.
BLAND: I am.
SIEGEL: That video was released last night by the Texas Department of Public Safety. It shows how Bland, who was later found hanged in a jail cell, was arrested after a traffic stop. How she died remains under investigation and in some dispute. The exchange between the black motorist and the white trooper also raises questions of what the police may demand of any of us and what rights we have at a traffic stop. And for answers to those questions, we turn now to Seth Stoughton, former police officer, now assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Welcome to the program once again.
SETH STOUGHTON: Thank you - pleasure to be here.
SIEGEL: Professor Stoughton, the driver, Sandra Bland, was stopped. The trooper told her she had changed lanes without signaling, and shortly thereafter came this exchange.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ENCINIA: You mind putting out your cigarette, please - don't mind.
BLAND: I'm in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?
ENCINIA: Well, you can step on out now.
SIEGEL: Well, let's deal with the first part of that. Does a police officer have the right to tell me, if I'm smoking in my own car, to crush out my cigarette?
STOUGHTON: I am not aware of anything that would give the officer the legal authority to ask you, to tell you, to command you to put out a cigarette, no.
SIEGEL: There's a difference between what he can ask me to do and what he can command me to do.
STOUGHTON: A tremendous difference. An officer, just like anyone around you, can make personal requests - nonbinding, non-mandatory - and you can agree or not. An officer also has some added authority, though, to issue orders - commands that he can enforce, backed up by physical violence if necessary.
SIEGEL: Well, the second half of that exchange was after she said, I'm in my own car. He said get out of your car. Does he have the authority to command her to get out of her car?
STOUGHTON: Yes. Police officers can, at any traffic stop, require a driver or other occupants of the vehicle to stay in the car or can command them collectively or individually to get out of the car. The Supreme Court has said that it is safer for officers. So for example, a car at night with heavily tinted windows, the officers may want to call the driver out of that car. It has resulted in a pretty broad rule. Officers don't need to articulate, in any specific case, that officer safety was involved.
SIEGEL: Now, from what I've seen of this video, Sandra Bland is furious with the state trooper. She verbally mocks him for having to physically subdue a female. She uses some obscenities. He gets very angry. I understand that she's obviously getting under his skin, but when she does that, is she violating any law?
STOUGHTON: No. We have very broad First Amendment protections that allow individuals, civilians to express themselves, including expressing themselves to officers. Where it crosses the legal line is refusing to comply with an officer's lawful command, and then we're back to that distinction between request and command.
SIEGEL: This video shows us a traffic stop which, if I didn't know what the end of the story was, I would've assumed it ends with somebody written a ticket and having to pay - I don't know - 50, $75 or showing up in court to say, I didn't change lanes without signaling. When you look at it, what's wrong here? What got in the way of that rather mundane result?
STOUGHTON: I think there are a couple of failures. The first is the officer's approach to miss Bland's irritation. He had the opportunity to connect and try and mitigate any of the tension of that encounter, and he didn't. He was very dismissive of her. When he requested that she put out the cigarette and she did not, then he became confrontational. At that point, he demanded that she leave the vehicle. By exercising his authority confrontationally and by doing it in a way that stripped her of power in the interaction, he potentially exacerbated a situation where confrontation was entirely avoidable. This case, tragic as the ending is, I think is also an example of lawful policing that is not good policing.
SIEGEL: Well, Professor Stoughton, thanks a lot for talking with us today.
STOUGHTON: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: Seth Stoughton teaches law at the University of South Carolina. He's also a former police officer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.