Updated on January 7 at 12:25 p.m.
A grand jury decided in December not to bring any charges in connection with Sandra Bland’s death in a Waller County, Texas, jail cell, but the legal case isn’t over yet.
On Wednesday, a grand jury issued an indictment against Trooper Brian Encinia, who was widely criticized after a video of his traffic stop and subsequent arrest of Bland was made public.
“In the probable-cause statement, Encinia stated that he had pulled her out of the car to continue the investigation. The grand jury did not believe that,” special prosecutor Darrell Jackson told me Wednesday. There’s little else that is known at this point, because as Jackson noted, grand-jury deliberations are closed. He said the indictment would likely be made public Thursday or Friday.
Still, the probable-cause statement offers some hints. Here’s Encinia’s report (click on the excerpt to view the full affidavit):
Encinia pulled Bland over for failing to signal a lane change. Their conversation quickly grew tense. “Are you done?” Bland asked. Encinia asked her to put out a cigarette and she refused. He then ordered her to get out of the car. She asked why, then Encinia threatened to tase her, saying, “I will light you up!” and dragged her out of the car.
The video is painful to watch. But many observers—including some police experts who believed Encinia should have handled the incident very differently and ought to have deescalated—argued that the trooper was likely within his rights: Encinia stated he was giving a “lawful order,” and drivers typically have to comply with any such order, for any reason. That’s where the statement comes in. Perhaps jurors felt that Encinia’s decision to drag Bland from the car was punitive, rather than intended to allow him to “further conduct a safe traffic investigation.” After all, by the time he removed her, he’d already stated that he was going to issue a warning; what more investigation was required?
Perjury is, of course, often a crime that prosecutors use to ensnare people when no other charge is really workable. Even after the decision not to charge anyone in Bland’s death, there was speculation and hope that Encinia might be indicted for his handling of the stop, perhaps for excessive force or some related charge. But as many cases—most recently the death of Tamir Rice—have shown, the law grants police broad latitude to use force, even when the use of force seems plainly excessive and appalling to lay people. Encinia’s actions during the stop may have stoked outrage, but it was only his explanation of his actions that got him indicted.
The charge is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable with a maximum of a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. Whether or not Encinia is convicted, it’s hard to imagine any indictment in this case if not for the dash-cam video from his patrol car. That makes one more police-violence case that hinges on film.
After Bland’s death, it was revealed that Encinia had been disciplined in 2014 for “unprofessional conduct.” The Texas Department of Public Safety announced late Wednesday that it would begin proceedings to fire Encinia. The department previously said he had violated DPS standards in the Bland case and placed him on administrative duty, but it hadn’t offered any further detail about his status.
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