Opinion

Will the Sandra Bland Case Be Reopened Now That We’ve Seen New Cellphone Video?

Now that new cellphone video from 2015 has been revealed in the Sandra Bland case, people want to know if any aspect of the case may be reopened. The 39-second video shows Trooper Brian Encinia pointing a stun gun at Bland from just outside of her car window and shouting commands.

Bland, 28, had been booked for “assault on a public servant,” but dashcam footage told a different story. Three days later, Bland died by hanging in her Waller County Jail cell. The fallout was immediate and sweeping. Bland’s family settled a lawsuit with Waller County, Texas over Sandra’s death for $1.9 million, and public outcry erupted over Bland’s treatment at the hands of law enforcement.

Officer Encinia was fired and subsequently indicted for perjury. Later, those perjury charges were dropped in exchange for Encinia’s agreement to end his career as a law enforcement officer. The grand jury declined to indict anyone in connection with Bland’s death, which was ruled a suicide.

Will the perjury charge be re-opened?

No. The perjury case against Encinia wasn’t dismissed because it lacked evidence; it was dismissed upon agreement between the prosecutors and the defendant. The perjury charge was a misdemeanor that carried a maximum sentence of one-year in prison and a $4,000 fine. The agreement— to drop the charges in exchange for Encinia’s promise to, “never seek, accept or engage in employment in any capacity with law enforcement,” was made public and put on the record before a state district judge.

Although the new cellphone video certainly constitutes new evidence, it is evidence of the same underlying crime – perjury. Bland’s personal video underscores information that was already public– that Encinia’s sworn account of the stop wasn’t true. He’d said that Bland had been, “combative and uncooperative,” when he removed her from her car to conduct a traffic investigation. The grand jury indicted Encinia when it found that his account had been false. Bland’s video supports the grand jury’s finding, but does not appear to constitute a ground to refile charges against Encinia.

The agreement to forego perjury prosecution wasn’t a loose understanding sealed with a handshake. It was a formal agreement, incorporated into the court record, and presided over by a judge. Absent an argument that the agreement was somehow flawed or coerced at its inception, it’s incredibly unlikely that a court would allow prosecutors to renege.

Is there anything that could lead to reopening the perjury case?

Yes. If Encinia sought some kind of law-enforcement employment, he’d be violating the non-prosecution agreement. As part of that agreement, Encinia also agreed not to seek expungement of the charge. Should he attempt to have the criminal record erased or sealed, that might well constitute a violation of his agreement with the state that would justify the refilling of perjury charges against him.

Could the new video lead to any other criminal charges?

It would be a longshot. Many people, including family members of Sandra Bland, have blasted authorities for failing to effectuate criminal charges for Bland’s death while in custody. While the scene at the traffic stop is arguably relevant to establish context, they aren’t directly relevant to the nature and circumstances of Bland’s death.

Certainly, it is possible that some new and meaningful fact arises from Bland’s video – but the grand jury already found that Encinia had lied, and still declined to indict anyone on homicide charges.

Isn’t it a problem that the video is just surfacing now?

It’s a potentially a big problem. While the content of Bland’s video may not be overwhelmingly meaningful to the legal process, the timing of that video is far more problematic. Clearly, the video is directly relevant to the Encinia perjury case; if the video was truly withheld from prosecutors, Bland’s family, and their lawyers, there may be cause for sanctions or other disciplinary action against the police department or its attorneys. Police, however, disputed that the video was “withheld” and said it was released as far back as 2017 to an Austin-area TV station.

[image via Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. She is a frequent media contributor, and is Of Counsel to Smedley & Lis, in Woodbury, New Jersey. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos

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