Sandra Bland’s Arrest and the Expectation of Meek Subservience

Texas DPSTexas DPSSome of the reaction to my post about Sandra Bland’s arrest leads me to believe I was not sufficiently explicit in criticizing Texas Trooper Brian Encinia’s actions. It seems to me he had no legitimate reason to order Bland out of her car after stopping her for a minor traffic violation (changing lanes without signaling), let alone to arrest her for failing to obey that unjustified command. Judging from the dashcam video of the traffic stop, his actions were motivated by anger at Bland’s insufficiently submissive attitude—in particular, her insistence that she had a right to smoke a cigarette in her own car, even if he preferred that she put it out. The escalation that ensued—which was driven, as I said, by Encinia’s need “to assert his authority for its own sake”—was completely unnecessary and unprofessional.

But that does not necessarily mean it was illegal. The Supreme Court has said police do not need any special reason to order drivers out of their cars during routine traffic stops. The rationale for that rule, which reflects the Court’s overly solicitious attitude toward police, is officer safety, but it does not require a case-specific inquiry as to whether a particular officer during a particular stop actually faced a potential threat that justified his order. So even if Encinia had no reasonable safety concerns regarding Bland, it looks like his order was constitutional, according to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment.

As for whether a Texas cop can legally order any driver he stops out of his car, then arrest him for failing to obey a lawful command, I’m not sure. In a 2007 discussion thread, members of the Texas District County Attorneys Association disagreed on the right answer to that question. But the provision requiring obedience to lawful police orders is part of the transportation code, and in Texas you can be arrested even for minor traffic offenses (with the notable exception of speeding), a practice the Supreme Court has approved. If it’s legal to arrest

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