For someone who grew up in a law office, I know surprisingly little about the law. Perhaps it is because I spent most of my days coloring or watching reruns of Hawaii 5-0 in the corner of the law office my father and grandfather shared, instead of listening to what was going on around me. Perhaps it is because legal conversations constituted the background noise of my life since birth in such a pervasive manner that I ceased to pay attention.
Well, I am paying attention now.
Sitting in Judge David Hittner’s Courtroom, on the 8th Floor of the Federal Court House in Houston, Texas, I rapidly took down notes, not knowing what all of the words I wrote meant, as the status hearing for the wrongful death civil trial of Sandra Bland began.
Sipping frequently from a coffee mug with the word “Dave” in block print up the side, Judge David Hittner made it clear from the outset that there would be no gag order during this trial to prevent communication with the press and that he intended to move through it as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The courtroom listened calmly as first the Plaintiff’s (Geneva Reed-Veal) attorneys introduced themselves and then the Defense. The introductions gave Judge Hittner his first opportunity to reveal his no-nonsense demeanor when the attorney for Waller County tried to opine that he was alone in representing the County, and the Judge responded dryly something along the lines of, “Now come on, we all know you’ve got a lot of people working with you.” Then the attorney for DPS (Texas Department of Public Safety) and Officer Encinia finished the introductions and they were off into the meat of the matter.
The Plaintiff’s attorney’s described first the responsibility of the Waller County Jail for the psychological and physical safety of their inmates, as well as delineating the jail standards that guards lay eyes on the prisoners once an hour for regular inmates, and every 15 minutes for those on suicide watch.
It was fascinating to hear that after more than 60 days of listening to officials and investigators around the Waller County Jail and Courthouse imply or state that Sandra Bland was suicidal, the case of the County now seemed to rest on their argument that they did not believe her to be suicidal. The importance of this change of tune rests on the fact that they would be legally responsible for their negligence if she was indeed suicidal and they knew and they did not do the 15 minute checks. As the attorneys for the Plaintiff made clear, however, that fact may prove to be immaterial as they do not believe that the guards performed even the 1 hour checks, let alone the 15 minute visual checks.
The first of only two audible murmurings swept across the courtroom soon after when the attorney for DPS and Officer Encinia began his remarks in a rather odd manner by saying that Officer Encinia saw Sandra Bland run a stop sign but he did not know if it was a private or a public stop sign so he decided to follow her for a while. The validity of bringing up whether it was a private or public stop sign, and what that means, seemed less concerning than the validity of bringing up a new violation that not been in the officer’s report, and therefore legally irrelevant, but practically biasing.
The second audible murmuring would be caused soon after by the same attorney when, after describing Sandra Bland as handcuffed after a struggle and placed in the police car, he began saying that the officers were concerned because she seemed to ducking around and searching frantically in her purse for something.
“How was she searching through her purse with her hands handcuffed?” the judge was quick to ask, prompting a quick response from the attorney that he was jumping around in the story and that piece was from the beginning.
Most pertinent to the conversation that followed seemed to be three concepts that are crucial to the State’s attempt to have the trial dismissed: Qualified Immunity, the 11th Amendment and the Monell Ruling.
I wrote down the words, not really knowing what they implied and looked into them when I got home. Qualified Immunity, from what I read, was established to protect officers and federal employees from prosecution when they did not realize they were violating someone’s Constitutional Rights. It seems to be somewhat of an “Oops Clause.”
“Qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan (07-751)
It is quite difficult to imagine a reasonable person applying this “oops clause” to the threat of “I will light you up!!” or the word “Good!” repeated when Sandra Bland informed the Officer she couldn’t hear and had epilepsy after her head was smashed on the ground.
The second point from the DPS was their pleading of coverage by the 11th Amendment:
“The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or Equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.”
Having been a condition of part of uniting the United States of America, this Amendment sought to strike a balance between Federal powers and the ability of each State to govern locally, by limiting what charges a Federal Court could hear against a State. This is pertinent because while Sandra Bland was traveling through the state of Texas, she and her family were from another state and, thus, limited in their rights, the State would argue, to hold its officials accountable. If you feel like that precedent should concern you, you would be right.
On the Plaintiff’s side, the concept of the Monell ruling was mentioned several times. This ruling, Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, gave women who had been put on forced maternity leave the right to sue the City of New York. By finding that the local government can be held responsible for depriving someone of their civil rights, the case created a precedent for the ability of individuals to sue a city, county or municipality for damages incurred through the violation of rights.
As the opening statements in the hearing concluded there were three more important points made. First, the Plaintiff pointed out that they had been given no evidence to look over and the County and State attorneys argued that it was because the evidence was in the hands of the Texas Rangers doing the criminal investigation. Judge David Hittner committed that he would tolerate no unnecessary delays and encouraged the DPS and County attorneys to transfer evidence as soon as possible.
The second point, argued by the DPS attorney, was that he had a right to know at what point excessive force was used and at what point a wrongful arrest was made. He argued that he had a right to have the timeline married with the accusations. While the Plaintiff’s attorneys pointed out how that had all been done very clearly in their brief, I could not help but think to myself that the wrongful arrest was pretty clear: it began the moment Officer Encinia said “You are under arrest” without cause and continued as he said “I’ll light you up!” and led Sandra Bland off camera with his taser; only to later report that she had “assaulted an officer” once she was off camera and you heard her thrown to the ground and in pain.
The third point, at least that I caught, was the refutal by the Plaintiff’s attorneys that qualified immunity should be applied to Waller County as well as to Officer Encinia, stating that Qualified Immunity is intended for an individual and not for a county. If such Qualified Immunity were permitted, it would mean doing a separate investigation for the County than for the guards involved and create a redundancy of work by creating the necessity to do the same depositions and investigation twice.
Those are exactly the kind of unnecessary delays that Judge David Hittner is trying to avoid. Therefore, while sipping from his “Dave” mug, he concluded that the court date would be set three months out and that the Plaintiff’s response to the County and State’s attempts to dismiss the case would be due in half that time.
As I stood waiting for the family with other Sandra Bland supporters, my mind raced to understand the Law of our land. For the first time in my thirty odd years, I realized that any and every case has the potential to create ripples in our legal system that can reach through our car doors and house doors and work doors and impact our lives and our deaths.
I stood deeply planted in the reality of this moment in our nation’s history: if we cannot find a way to not only empower law enforcement, but also hold them accountable, we will never know “liberty and justice for all.”
If this matters to you, please click here and support the family of Sandra Bland in their struggle for justice. It impacts us all, and every little bit helps.