BY JOHNATHAN SILVER | The Texas Tribune
Fourteen recommendations in the Texas House County Affairs Committee’s recent report to lawmakers – including calls for them to increase police officer training for de-escalation and mental health awareness, to back jail-to-treatment diversion programs, and eliminate consent searches during stops – will be the foundation for the Sandra Bland Act.
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, announced last year that he would file the bill to address race, poverty, mental health and accountability in law enforcement and corrections.
In 2015, former Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia stopped Sandra Bland in Prairie View after she failed to signal a lane change. Bland’s conversation with the arresting officer became heated, and she was arrested for assaulting a public servant.
Bland, a 28-year-old Illinois woman, was found dead in her Waller County Jail cell three days after her arrest, sparking concerns about jail conditions and outrage across the country. Her death has been ruled a suicide by hanging.
Though it’s legal, it doesn’t make sense for someone to be arrested because of a traffic violation or for a stop like Bland’s to escalate into an arrest, Coleman said.
“If you look at Sandra Bland, the incident that led to her death – that’s all you have to look at,” said Coleman, who was the County Affairs chairman last session. Committee assignments for the 2017 session have not been announced.
If a driver’s tail light is out, or they cross over the yellow line, no matter how briefly, “the law says they are jailable offenses, so we have to remove that from the statute,” Coleman said.
“[Encinia] was well within his right to (arrest Bland), and that’s where we’re running into the problem,” he said. “It’s baked in the cake. Injustice is baked into the cake.”
Other proposals from the committee include eliminating consent searches and raising the threshold for stops to something higher than the current “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion.”
Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, said his organization would oppose such changes.
“It’s folly,”Lawrence said. “The whole premise behind it is the argument that the individuals are not truly consenting (to be searched), that somehow the officers are goading or tricking or whatever into consenting.”
Lawrence said changing the standards for stops and searches would help defense attorneys confuse juries.
“The standards are set,” he said. “The Fourth Amendment has worked well for 240 years now, and so tinkering with it at this point just because you’re trying to appease a constituency, not a good idea in our opinion.”
Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s traffic stop based on probable cause is a good example of why the standards shouldn’t change, Lawrence said. McVeigh may have never been caught were it not for the traffic stop, he said.
“During that stop, the officer, because of his training, his experience, his instinctive, intuitive perceptions of what was going on, he developed a reasonable suspicion to believe there was something more going on with that guy, so he went ahead and arrested him on the original traffic violation,” Lawrence said. “Once he did that, then they did a search of inventory of the automobile, where they found the lease agreement on the Ryder truck. And that was when they realized hey, we really have something more going on here, and they called the FBI, and the FBI traced that Ryder truck back to the Oklahoma City bombing.”
In the proposal, the County Affairs Committee also recommends that lawmakers:
- require DPS to accurately document the race of the people they stop
- mandate that jails add electronic monitoring systems to document when “cell checks” are done on inmates
- create policies that promote more personal recognizance bonds — when courts release individuals without having to pay bail because they aren’t considered threats to the community or a flight risk
- ensure that health care continues for people after they are released from jail. Medicaid, Supplemental Security Insurance and Social Security Disability Insurance are terminated when someone goes to jail, and the state takes over healthcare. The committee’s proposal calls for a suspension instead.
Lawmakers also should address contraband behind bars by employing drug-sniffing dogs at all entry points of a facility, and officer contracts should stipulate that they be fired if they’re found guilty of perjury or aid another officer in committing perjury, said Cannon Lambert, an attorney for Sandra Bland’s family.
Bland reportedly had marijuana in her system before she died.
“They do regular walkthroughs,” Lambert said. “And to employ a drug dog seems sensible.”
Encinia faces a perjury charge after a Waller County grand jury identified a discrepancy between what his official report says about why Bland stepped out of her car and what dashboard camera footage shows.
The anti-perjury proposal “would change the culture of policing,” Lambert said. “That protects good officers from bad officers because the good officers can say ‘No, I can’t lie for you.’”