The Texas state trooper who escalated a routine traffic stop into a physical encounter with Sandra Bland could get away without any jail time, according to one legal expert.
A grand jury on Wednesday indicted Brian Encinia for perjury, a charge that carries up to one year in prison and $4,000 fine. But a plea deal could spare him hard time, said Andrea Ritchie, a police misconduct attorney and co-author of Say Her Name, the 2015 report on black women impacted by state violence.
Bland was found dead in her jail cell three days after her arrest from an apparent suicide on July 13, 2015. Her death received national attention after a video was released of her arrest that showed Encinia aggressively questioning Bland and threatening to “light you up” with his Taser.
The Texas Department of Public Safety said Wednesday it would fire Trooper Encinia. Ritchie viewed his ouster as a step forward, but noted its inevitability—the decision came just hours after the grand jury’s indictment came down.
Encinia’s indictment and firing is a significant development in the investigation into the death of Bland. (A separate wrongful death lawsuit brought by Bland’s family still stands.) To make sense of it, Fusion spoke with Andrea Ritchie, whose report on state violence against black women elevated the coverage of Sandra Bland’s death.
Ritchie is not personally involved in the case. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Perjury is a big deal. Why does Encinia face only a one-year sentence?
Perjury is a big deal. It’s always a big deal to lie in a criminal proceeding or in any judicial proceeding. But apparently the statute under which State Trooper Encinia was charged for perjury is a class A misdemeanor, which is only punishable by up to a year.
Walk me through what happens now. Is it possible that he won’t go to prison at all?
It’s possible. The charge has been laid against him, so he will have to appear in front of a judge and enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. He may enter a plea in exchange for a more lenient sentence. If the sentence of up to a year in prison and a fine of $4,000 is the maximum penalty that he can be given, it’s entirely possible, and likely if it’s his first offense, that he would get no jail time at all—that he would get community service or some kind of probation and pay a lesser or no fine. Unfortunately, accountability beyond being charged is by no means guaranteed.
Would Encinia have to pay the $4,000 fine, or would the state?
Generally state authorities don’t indemnify criminal penalties and fines. So it’s likely that if he does have to pay a fine, he’ll have to pay it himself.
The Texas Rangers were among the agencies that investigated Bland’s death. What evidence of theirs did the grand jury review before making this decision?
Unfortunately, grand jury proceedings are completely secret so we may never know what evidence was presented to that grand jury and whether that evidence was gathered by Texas State Troopers or by an investigation separately by the DA’s office or some other evidence. Or if they simply watched the video that we all watched and made a determination about whether the arrest was justified.
We’ll never know if the Texas state troopers had a hand in holding [Encinia] accountable. But what they did do is hold off taking any action against him whatsoever, besides placing him on administrative leave for six months until he was charged criminally and they had no choice [but to fire him]. Obviously they were waiting for the grand jury to do their job of holding Encinia accountable.
Tell me about the perjury charge. What would it take to prove Encinia perjured himself?
Well, the charge is based on an affidavit he filed. So the notion is that he perjured himself in the affidavit in saying that he removed her from her car in order to preserve his own safety. It’s entirely possible the grand jury just watched the video and there was clearly no risk to his safety, as we all saw when we watched the video back in July…He ordered her out of the car simply as a punitive measure. He was punishing her for what he perceived to be non-compliance when in fact, as we have talked about many times before, she was being perfectly compliant, answering his questions, including his question about why she was irritated, saying she just wanted to get her ticket and be left alone.
I think what we can surmise is that the grand jury looked at the evidence available to them, whether it was a video or anything additional and, determined that by swearing that he felt his safety was at risk and that’s why he arrested her, he lied.
As one of the authors of Say Her Name, do you think that this development is a big deal? Was justice served for Sandra Bland?
I think any accountability is better than no accountability. Do I think it’s sufficient accountability? It’s far from it. I think that if you’re looking for accountability in the way of criminal charges it’s clear that Officer Encinia assaulted Sandra Bland, that he caused her a physical injury, that he arrested her without any single justification even though technically you can arrest people for traffic violations. He didn’t say that’s why he was arresting her.
I think there’s plenty of ways he can be held accountable: for assault, for threatening to light her up with a Taser with no justification, for slamming her to the ground, for causing her physical injury. For starting a chain of events that was unnecessary that ultimately led to her death. So I think that if you’re looking for accountability in the criminal legal system, this was the mildest form possible in terms of a charge. And is certainly not rising to the level to the harm done to her.
I think in terms of the accountability for the officer being fired, it’s rare. But I think the fact that it took seven months to happen, and happened only when the department had no choice because criminal charges had been filed…The message that was sent to officers was one of, “Well, if you don’t get caught, it’s something you can get away with.”
But in the end Sandra Bland is still not with us. Her death was completely avoidable and completely based on driving while black and being a black woman in an encounter with a police officer. And we’d like to see more accountability and more systemic change.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.