We should all be greatly concerned about the July 10 traffic stop of Sandra Bland. The officer’s dash-cam video captured what appears to be a completely pretextual stop by a bored Trooper apparently looking for a reason to justify his law enforcement existence.
Ms. Bland was driving properly in the left lane when she noticed a police car behind her beginning to close the distance between them. The cars flashers were not on, and so believing that the officer was en route to a situation requiring his presence, Ms. Bland moved to the right. The officer immediately moved into Ms. Bland's lane and activated his traffic stop flashers. Ms. Bland then pulled over as quickly as she could. Though she failed to signal as she moved over to allow the officer to pass, there was no traffic-related reason for the stop.
The officer engaged Ms. Bland for a minute and a half before he returned to his patrol vehicle with her driver’s license. He kept her driver’s license for nearly five minutes. When he returned to Ms. Bland’s vehicle, he asked how she was feeling. She responded that she was irritated, at which point the tenor of the stop changed to open hostility. Ms. Bland refused to put out her cigarette and also attempted to recite her rights as she knew and understood them, and in retaliation the officer repeatedly yelled at her to get out of her car. Finally he told her she was under arrest. Ms. Bland exited her car and continued to record the incident on her cell phone. The officer then forced her to put down her phone and handcuffed her.
At some point, another individual came up and began recording their interactions. Clearly audible is the officer telling that person that they need to leave.
Additional officers arrived to ensure that the first officer had not been harmed by Ms. Bland. The officers exchanged statements which were proved untrue by the video capturing the incident. The officers then thoroughly searched the trunk of Ms. Bland’s vehicle and prepared it to be towed. The officer had unnecessarily escalated the situation in response to her unhappiness about the stop.
Ms. Bland’s death while in custody is a tragedy that did not have to happen. But what is the law? And what are your rights? Can you lawfully refuse to exit your car?
The quick answer is no. Whether you are a passenger (Rakas v. Illinois) or the driver (Pennsylvania v. Mimms), the United States Supreme Court has ruled that a law enforcement officer can order you out of the car--even if there is no suspicion of weapons or contraband.
Ms. Bland's case is somewhat unique because the officer clearly asked her to step out of the car because of her attitude (and because she would not put out the cigarette), not because there was a public safety need. There is an element of retaliation and a possible First Amendment issue as to whether she was later punished for exercising her freedom of speech and symbolic speech.
If you intend to ever insist on your rights during a police encounter, be sure that you announce them in such a manner that you do not get yourself arrested, injured, or killed by a hot-tempered and unfit law enforcement officer. "Contempt of cop" is probably the number one reason among police officers to contrive reasons for placing someone under arrest or, worse, for using excessive force.
If you would like to learn more about your rights or believe that you have been discriminated against please visit the Civil Rights Justice Center located at 2150 N. 107th Street in Seattle Washington or visit our website at civilrightsjusticecenter.com