Tag Archives: #sandrabland

Sandra Bland: Does The Law Protect The State Or Its Citizens?

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.

Sandra Bland: Love Is Not A Factor In The Bail Equation

On a Sunday afternoon at Waller County Jail, you see something you do not see much of during the rest of the week: children.

On weekends, the focus of activity shifts from trying to get people out of Jail, to visiting those who are stuck inside. Energy shifts from negotiations with bail bondsmen to consolations between loved ones. As visitation days, Saturday and Sunday experience a rhythm that does not happen all throughout the week. The labor at the Jail shifts on Sundays to focus on security because there are so many additional people present that are not usually there. The weekday rhythm of transporting prisoners, engaging with bail bondsmen, and holding meetings slows and the space is filled instead with faces that are not present on a typical work day.

The rhythm actually feels pretty similar to the summer I spent working in the Chaplain’s Office at a hospital. I remember that patients always knew that if they did not get discharged by Friday afternoon, they probably would not get discharged until Monday. In the tower of triage paperwork, as administrators prioritized patients based on severity of condition, if you could sit tight for a couple days, that is probably the situation in which you would find yourself.

This would be simply a quaint analogy with images of children running Matchbox cars over the tile floors of both hospitals and jails around the country if it were not for one important fact: Sandra Bland was arrested on a Friday afternoon.

From what I have observed over the past couple months, getting someone out of Jail on a regular business day is complicated enough. One day I sat beside a woman who was calling bail bondsmen all day long and not able to get one to answer. Another day, I watched as a bail bondsman spent the entire day sitting, trying to get someone out of Jail, only to be turned away at the end of the day and told that there were no staff available to process his paperwork.

I have to admit, watching all of this take place has made me highly aware of the privilege that has shielded me from ever having to understand how any of this works. That ignorance has made it take several weeks for me to understand how crucial these complications are to Sandra Bland’s situation.

Many people with similar levels of ignorance to my own of the bonding system have tweeted criticism that Sandra Bland’s family and friends could not just pull together the $500 and bail her out. Have you ever had someone you loved suffer and not been able to fix it? How would you feel if everyone and their brother then felt entitled to have an opinion about what you should have done? How would you feel if they tweeted those opinions in your moments of deepest grief?

It is true that Sandra Bland’s bail was set at $5,000, only $500 of which needed to be paid immediately, but where most people go wrong is that they think anyone could just walk down there, put $500 on the counter and say, “Hand over Sandra Bland.” It is not as simple as that. Especially not on a Friday.

Especially not on a Friday at 4:27 pm. Get admitted to the hospital ICU at 4:27 pm on a Friday afternoon, and you are in until at least Monday morning. Get booked at 4:27 pm on a Friday afternoon in a quiet Jail, on a side road, in a rural county, and you are going nowhere fast.

After spending seven Friday afternoons in the parking lot of the Waller County Jail, I can tell you that it has the feeling of a man loosening his belt after Thanksgiving dinner as the turkey does its trick and leaves you ready for a nap. After a week of meetings and administration, non-essential staff is headed out the door and everything is getting pretty quiet.

Even if you could get there during regular business hours, slam $500 down on the counter and say “Hand over Sandra Bland,” that is simply not how the bail system works. To start with, you are not even going to be giving the $500 to the Jail. You are going to be giving the $500 to the bail bondsman. He is then going to go to the Jail with his license as a bondsman, with which he can prove that he has the $5,000 collateral to commit in order to obtain Sandra Bland’s release. You see no one actually hands over $500. The bail bondsman has a license and a limited collateral that he can commit against the odds of someone jumping bail (not reporting for their court date). Once he has reached the limit of his collateral, he cannot bail anyone else out.

The only way I can understand the bond system is to think of needing to have my parents co-sign on my student loans in college. Those that gave me the loans did not know if I could pay them back, but they did know that my parents had collateral and if I failed to pay, they could come after my parents’ assets. That is what a bail bondsman does: he puts his collateral on the line. He gambles against the odds of someone jumping bail; and if they do, he can send someone after them.

So, even when you have the money (which Sandra’s family did), first, you have to find a bail bondsman. Yet, that is not always the easiest thing to do, even if you are close by, and especially if you are far away. Remember the woman sitting in the parking lot all day unable to get a bondsman? Even if you drive over from Waller, or Cypress, or Houston, or Chicago, that does not mean you will be able to get a bondsman to show up when you want them to come. They could choose not to answer because they have reached the limit on their collateral; or they could prefer to wait in order to do multiple bonds on one trip. Or they could simply be busy, uninterested, asleep, or at their daughter’s soccer game.

Because here is the thing, bondsmen are not civil servants, they are business men. They have no obligation to the people that call them. They do not have to answer the phone, they do not have to come, and they do not have to put up their collateral against the likelihood of whether a person’s loved one will jump bail.  Without getting one to answer, and agree to come, your loved one is not getting out of jail. They are doing the people who call them a favor, with the hope of a financial reward, betting their collateral against the loved one’s good behavior.

Beyond that, even if a bondsman comes, that does not mean your loved one is getting out of jail. Remember the bondsman who sat all day and still could not get the loved one released? When I went into the lobby to use the bathroom, I observed him submitting his paperwork through the slot. Hours later, he finally came out and said that he had been informed that there was no staff person available to process his paperwork. So a family member had actually contracted with him to come and put up the bail; and he had sat there all day; and he still could not get the person released because no one was available to process his request.

So, to those of you who have been asking why someone’s family would not be able to get them out of jail immediately, ask yourself whether your family could if you were arrested on the other side of the country, in a quiet, rural town, at 4:27 pm on a Friday afternoon as everyone was going home for the weekend. The measure of how much you love a person is simply not a factor in the equation.

Sandra Bland’s death in the care, custody and control of the Waller County Jail is serving to bring light to what many families around the country suffer when their loved ones are arrested unexpectedly, whether they be far away or close by.

Sandy Still Speaks

“Mommy why are the police mad? The police pushed me…” the small African American girl said to her mother as she and a handful of other young girls were shuffled into the arms of a waiting grandmother. Looking down I saw a sight that seared itself into my memory: five pairs of eyes, in five little faces, welling with tears that balanced on the very brink of overflow and the very depth of terror.

I have never seen anything so painful in my life. Except the eyes of Sandra Bland’s sisters overflowing with tears as I looked into them at Hope AME and committed to stay at the Waller County Jail as long as they needed. Or that pair of eyes, similar to theirs, that cause me even more pain: the eyes of Sandra Bland, brilliant and lively in her videos, a constant reminder that her eyes will never well with tears again, and because of that ours must.

Just minutes earlier, the crowd that had gathered for the recently ended rally of Remembrance & Response surged to the doors of the Waller County Jail and began to chant: “Sandy still speaks. Sandy still speaks.”

I came close to see what was happening and then stepped back as a news camera asked me to get out of the way so that they could dive into the midst of the crowd. I turned to answer someone’s question when suddenly my attention was snapped back to the doors of the jail as screams erupted and people started tumbling over one another out of the doors. They weren’t so much fleeing as falling, like grains of sand sliding down an incline when you try to force them up into a pile.

“Get behind me,” my friend Steven called out, directing me back from the conflict in the same direction that that mother took the little girls. I looked down to my right, into their eyes, overwhelmed with the sorrow of their fear.

The doors of the jail pulled shut and were chained, and I thought that it was over until people started to chant, “Let them out! Let them out!” and realized to my horror that people were trapped inside… I realized to my horror that the mothers of some of these little girls were probably trapped inside… I realized to my horror that these little girls were watching their mothers be trapped inside a building where another young African American woman had lost her life, the woman whose name we chanted: Sandra Bland.

Things I did not know at that moment: I did not know what was happening inside. I did not know that crowds of troopers in riot gear were waiting around the corner ready to charge at the slightest provocation. I did not know that officers were pulling assault rifles out of their cars. I did not know that one of my mentors PK was trapped inside. I did not know which of these set of terrified eyes knew that their mother was trapped inside.

Things my friends did not know at that moment: Where I was.

Having become one of the most recognizable people at the Waller County Jail after 26 days of sitting vigil, my friends experienced several minutes of terror as I seemed to have disappeared in the midst of the confusion. They did not know that I was standing further back with my body planted between those five sets of eyes and the County Jail.

Finding me, they could only repeat, “Never do that again. Never disappear again.”

The people trapped inside the jail were eventually led out through another door. Amazingly, they had captured every second on tape on the little devices that Sandra Bland said were powerful enough to change things in this country: cell phones. Multiple videos from multiple angles all showed the same thing: people chanting “Sandy still speaks” for a couple minutes until police officers come out of the jail and into the lobby and begin pushing, shoving and sometimes hitting them until they shove the majority of them out the doors and chain them behind them leaving a few trapped inside. At the beginning of the conflict, one woman stands in the center, determined to be peaceful, her hands raised high in the air, repeating “Sandy still speaks” until it appears she is struck and falls.

The unnecessary escalation led to great sadness and confusion. People milled around shocked. It was exactly the kind of police-initiated escalation that cost Sandra Bland her life. As we struggled to overcome our shock, we had no idea that around the corner troopers in riot gear stood ready to charge at the least provocation.

Why? It was a peaceful, organized protest. We had made all the information about the event and the speakers public.

Yet there persisted a fear. A fear of black bodies that are unapologetic about their rights. A fear that has been perpetuated by local law enforcement spreading rumors to the community that we are rioters and spreading rumors to us both today and yesterday that the KKK or other groups may try to interrupt our gatherings. All of the fear, all of the rumors, have been encouraged and spread by law enforcement; escalating rather than deescalating tensions in the community. Causing the pastors that speak up to lock their doors during church services out of fear, and the pastors that do not speak up to encourage their congregations to see us as outside agitators.

Yet, if we are to be criticized as outside agitators for journeying into places of pain with a message of justice and love, then we are keeping good company with Jesus Christ who spent his life doing just that, turning over tables when necessary; as well as Paul after him, who traveled even further abroad, disrupting the plans of the Romans and the business of the Greeks.

As the dust settled, an older woman, knocked to the ground by the domino effect of the police shoving, was loaded into an ambulance; garbage lay scattered; and five sets of eyes wiped away tears as those trapped inside were released and their mothers returned.

The entire staff came out the doors of the jail and stood in full gear as a sign of force. One white officer walked past me as I picked up trash and said, “I’ve seen you here before.”

“Yes,” I replied, “you have; and you’ll see me here again.”

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