Dead suspect transparency measure emerges in Sandra Bland hearing

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Texas House County Affairs Committee members discussed cellphone video from a highly-scrutinized 2015 traffic stop Friday, Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, brought up a legislative measure that would require such video to be released if someone requests it, ultimately closing the so-called “dead suspect loophole.”

In July 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over by Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian Encinia. The traffic stop escalated and Encinia arrested Bland. Three days later, she was found dead in a Waller County jail cell. Jail officials say she committed suicide.

Bland recorded her encounter with ​​​​​​Encinia on her cell phone, and that video was publicized earlier this month.

“Today, because no conviction was had, that video, under the law as it stands, could have been secreted forever,” Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said during Friday’s committee hearing.

DPS attorney Phillip Adkins said they chose to release the video to Bland’s attorney in October 2015, even though they could have withheld it by law. Bland’s attorney claims he’s never seen the video, according to the New York Times.

Conference committee members

If you want to contact members to express your thoughts:

  • Sen. Kirk Watson (Chair), D-Austin, email, 512-463-0114
  • Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, email, 512-463-0125
  • Sen. Kelly Hancock, R- North Richland Hills, email, 512-463-0109
  • Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, email, 512-463-0103
  • Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, email, 512-463-0108
  • Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (Chair), R-Southlake, email, 512-463-0690
  • Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, email, 512-463-0738
  • Rep. Mike Lang, R-Granbury, email, 512-463-0656
  • Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, email, 512-463-0728
  • Rep. Geanie W. Morrison, R-Victoria, email, 512-463-0456

Contact Gov. Greg Abbott’s office at 512-463-2000 or online.

Still, Moody asked Adkins his thoughts on the fact that the video would have never been available to the public if the agency had decided not to release it.

“I don’t think that’s good public policy, no,” Adkins said.

This is the second legislative session in which Moody is trying to revise the law and require police to release information in closed cases if a suspect is dead, incapacitated or all parties involved agree to its release. 

Currently, the “dead suspect loophole” in the state’s public information act gives police discretion to withhold information in closed criminal cases that don’t end in a conviction or deferred adjudication. An ongoing KXAN investigation has revealed police agencies across the state using that law to keep information secret when people die in their custody.

Moody’s effort was added as an amendment to Senate Bill 944 — an omnibus piece of legislation that addresses several other open records points. 

SB 944 author Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, Moody, and eight others were appointed earlier this week to a conference committee that is still discussing the bill’s fate. Lawmakers only have a few more days to make a decision as this session closes Tuesday. Even if the bill clears the House and Senate, Gov. Greg Abbott has the power to sign or veto it.

Moody’s amendment to the bill would also require the release of police internal affairs records related to dead suspects, even if allegations haven’t been substantiated against an officer. That portion of the bill has drawn concern from the law enforcement community and Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), who are trying to get the measure stripped from the bill.

Still, a related bill has cleared both chambers and should head to the governor’s desk soon.

House Bill 4236, authored by Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, would allow families of dead suspects to view body camera footage, even while criminal investigations are still playing out. It does have the support of law enforcement, but critics say it does not allow families to make copies of the footage for lawsuits or make it available to the rest of the public.

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