Monday, August 10, 2015

Sandra Bland & the rights of the accused

Sandra Bland died alone in jail in Waller County, Texas, failed by the justice system that was supposed to care for her.
As the 52-minute dash cam video of her arrest shows, Trooper Brian Encinia was seriously deceptive in how he recounted the interaction on his radio. In his telling, Sandra Bland was cursing him out from the very beginning of their conversation – while the tape shows that she’s irked, but answers his questions respectfully. He says he “allowed time to de-escalate.” But here’s how much time ticks away between the moment he gets to her car to hand her the ticket and his angry demand that she get out of the car: 40 seconds. He says she pulled away from him, but the tape shows nothing of the sort – only that she’s upset and calls him a pussy after he wrestles her to the ground.

Beyond her spurious arrest for assault on a public servant, a class-three felony, after having been pulled over simply for failing to signal while changing lanes, there’s another issue that contributed to her death: in her three nights in jail, Sandra Bland never got to see or talk with someone who was on her side.

Take her arraignment (in Waller County, it’s called a Magistrate’s Admonishment). This is the moment when you appear before a judge and are formally advised of the charges against you. It’s a piece of judicial theater that’s well known to viewers of the long-running TV show Law & Order, with attorneys and prosecutors battling it out over bail.

If Sandra Bland had had a lawyer (a right that has been established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Miranda case), that advocate would have suggested that Judge Delores Hargrave release her on her own recognizance – because she had roots in the community (Prairie View A&M University was her alma mater) and had moved to Waller County to take a job on campus. This was not someone who was going to cut and run.

Instead, Sandra Bland stood alone in an orange Gitmo-style jump suit before Judge Hargrave. The jail security camera has no audio, so we don’t know if she was given the chance to say anything. According to the Admonishment form signed by Judge Hargrave and Ms. Bland, she said she did not want a lawyer. The judge imposed bail of $5,000. Wanting to discuss these matters, I called Judge Hargrave a number of times at her office and home in the weeks after Sandra Bland died, but she did not return the calls.

Orange may be the new black on TV, but in real life a felony is a serious thing. Indeed, a felony conviction might have denied, or at least complicated, Sandra Bland’s ability to take up her new job. Prairie View A&M University is a state-funded institution and requires all staffers to go through a criminal background check. A conviction would not automatically have barred Sandra Bland from being hired, but even if the case were simply in process, she would have had to inform Prairie View, perhaps muddling things with her new employer. And she would probably have had to report this to all future employers for the rest of her life.

A conviction might also have, if she decided to register in Waller County, taken away her right to vote, at least temporarily (according to the Texas Secretary of State, a person cannot register to vote if he or she has been convicted of a felony and not completed the full sentence imposed by the court.)

Being in jail is shocking – particularly if you’ve never been there before. It helps to know just what the procedures are and how long they usually take. An advocate could have walked her through the process and served as a point person for her family and friends. Someone who understood the system could have tried to keep her spirits up and perhaps more quickly coordinated her release.

But America, it seems, is vengeful towards the accused, no matter how concocted the charges against them. The only thing America offered Sandra Bland was a county-issue bright orange jump suit.

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