Perjury Charge Dropped Against Trooper Who Stopped Sandra Bland
By Gabrielle Banks
The former Texas trooper who stopped Sandra Bland on a Waller County roadside in 2015 had the criminal charge against him dismissed Wednesday, stirring painful emotions from Bland's family members who had hoped the case would go to trial.
State District Judge Albert McCaig Jr. dismissed a misdemeanor perjury charge against Brian Encinia, who arrested the 28-year-old after a questionable traffic stop.
She hanged herself three days later at the Waller County Jail, igniting nationwide protests over police treatment of African-Americans.
The special prosecutors assigned to the case agreed to drop the charge under the condition that Encinia, who had been terminated by the Texas Department of Public Safety, turn over his police credentials and sign a sworn statement promising not to seek work as a licensed peace officer in Texas or elsewhere.
Bland's eldest sister Shante Needham, who lives outside Chicago, wept as she recalled a private meeting she and her mother had with Encinia's prosecutors about the case in 2016.
"In September, we were expecting to be in Texas sitting in the courtroom, but today they cut him a deal," she said. "Why? Why? Why? Why did you cut him a deal when you sat in our faces and you seen our pain and you told us you were going to take it to court?"
Encinia's lawyer, Chip Lewis, said returning to police work was not a possibility for the former trooper. After videos of the traffic stop went viral, Encinia got death threats and was assigned police protection.
"He was never was going to be a police officer after this saga," Lewis said. "He cares too much about his family and the law enforcement community as a whole. There would be a [large] target on his back and he's not going to do that."
Lewis said he was prepared to call a long line of officers to testify that Encinia was duty bound to act as he did during the stop, and felt confident a jury would agree with the officers.
"Brian and his family appreciate the thoughtful review by the prosecutors," Lewis said in a statement. "Dismissal was the right thing to do. The Encinias will remain forever grateful to their family, friends and members of the law enforcement community for all their support."
Phoebe Smith, a private lawyer in Sugar Land tapped by the Waller County District Attorney to prosecute the case along with attorney Chad Dick, said she felt terrible about the family's loss, but she didn't want to risk the possibility of a jury acquitting Encinia.
"We dismissed it based on the fact that he permanently surrendered his license," she said. "The bottom line is, we never wanted him to be a police officer again and we wanted to ensure that outcome. When you take a case in front of jury there's always that risk."
Bland had recently relocated to Prairie View in Waller County from Illinois when Encinia pulled her over on July 10, 2015, for failing to signal a lane change. After a verbal exchange, Encinia asked her to step out of the car and booked her -- after holding her to the ground -- for becoming combative.
After Bland's death, a Waller County grand jury indicted Encinia for making false statements about the circumstances surrounding her arrest.
The charge stemmed from a statement he made in a one-page sworn statement filed after Bland's arrest that he removed her from her Hyundai Azera to "further conduct a safe traffic investigation."
A police officer told the Chronicle he overheard Encinia telling another officer -- while Bland waited in a squad car -- that he didn't know what charges he should file.
Encinia, who had been with DPS a little more than a year at the time, had been disciplined by the DPS for "unprofessional conduct" in the two months leading up to Bland's arrest, according to state records. He was given written counseling and received later evaluations as "competent."
Bland's mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit over her daughter's death, and in September reached a $1.9 million settlement with Waller County and the state of Texas.
In June, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Sandra Bland Act, which beefed up protections at rural jails and added de-escalation training for police officers, though the bill was changed during the legislative process and didn't go as far as Bland's family had hoped.
Needham said the watered-down bill made her family feel that "lawmakers and the criminal justice system are laughing at us."
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who authored the original version of the bill, said the de-escalation provisions should help prevent future tragedies. But he said the decision to drop the perjury charge against Encinia was "upsetting."
"The trooper's actions were the catalyst for Ms. Bland's death, and his roughing up of Ms. Bland was unacceptable," he said. "I'm sorry to Ms. Bland's family for how poorly Texas has treated their loved one ... At least Mr. Encinia will no longer be able to be a peace officer in Texas, and do to another what he did to Ms. Bland."
Cannon Lambert Sr., the attorney who handled the civil case for Bland's mother, said the decision to drop the charge against Encinia was difficult for the family.
"Why the special prosecutors would decide not to prosecute after assuring the family that they would is truly disturbing," he said, "particularly since they didn't even tell the family or I that they were not going to pursue the case any longer.
"The idea that he's giving up his license to be a police officer isn't satisfying, since a conviction, which was something that would have easily been achieved, would have blocked Encinia from acting as a police officer in the future anyway."
Activists stirred by Bland's death were disappointed with the decision. Hannah Bonham, a Methodist clergy member who is active in Sandra Bland events, said the Encinia case has continually disappointed Bland's supporters.
"The manner in which this case has been carried out has seemed intended to cause the greatest possible psychological harm to Sandra Bland's family and supporters," she said.
Needham said she visits her sister's grave in Willow Springs, Illinois, and dances there to Sandra's favorite Bruno Mars songs. She says her sister was an outspoken advocate for justice, meaning that the dismissal of the perjury charge "just adds more insult to an already open wound."
"I definitely think they need to start holding these officers accountable," she said. "If you start holding them accountable and they're losing their jobs, losing their pensions, serving jail time, I'm willing to bet all of this foolishness will stop."
(c)2017 the Houston Chronicle