Lawmaker panel questions DPS, AG over Sandra Bland cell phone video

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Friday morning, Chairman of the Texas House County Affairs Committee Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, will call leaders of the Department of Public Safety and the Attorney General’s Office to answer questions about cell phone video from a highly-scrutinized 2015 traffic stop. 

In July 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over by DPS 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. 

Encinia’s dash cam video of the incident was released in 2015 and showed him holding a stun gun as he ordered Bland to get out of the car, saying: “I will light you up. Get out now. Get out of the car.” Encinia was later indicted on a perjury charge but the charge was dropped after he agreed to give up his law enforcement license. 

Video made public this month shows the incident from Bland’s perspective. She recorded her encounter with Encinia with her cell phone.

Rep. Coleman tells KXAN the goal of Friday’s hearing is to find out details about how the video was released. 

“The goal is to find out more about the dispensing of that cell phone video: who got it, when they got it, was it turned over in a way that it could be easily found in the discovery that was given to Sandra Bland’s attorneys,” Chairman Coleman said. “Quite frankly, it’s late, but it would have had a bearing on the Encinia plea bargain or settlement. It would have had a bearing, I believe, on the civil settlement.”

KXAN asked the Texas Department of Public Safety about Friday’s hearing. In a statement, a spokeswoman said the state delivered the cell phone video to Bland’s attorney during the civil discovery process, but the evidence was not publicly available until after the criminal investigation was complete in 2017. 

DPS released to KXAN a 2015 letter and picture of a thumb drive from lawyers representing Waller County to lawyers representing the Bland family. The DPS spokeswoman points to this letter as evidence officials turned over Bland’s cell phone video to her family’s attorneys in October 2015. 

Read the letter below: 

Full response from DPS Communications Director Katherine Cesinger:

The civil litigation involving Sandra Bland’s family was litigated carefully and appropriately under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The civil lawsuit occurred during an active criminal investigation. Suit was filed within 22 days of the traffic stop. It was appropriate for attorneys representing the parties in the civil suit to litigate the manner and timing of the release of evidence from the ongoing criminal investigation; to do otherwise could have jeopardized potential criminal prosecutions.

It is noteworthy that the Ranger Report of Investigation was produced in the civil litigation, after in-camera inspection by United States District Judge David Hittner, subject to a protective order that limited the report to use in the civil litigation; prohibited dissemination of the report publicly; and required that the files provided be returned following the end of the civil litigation. These limits on civil discovery are a recognition that unfettered discovery in the civil matter could have a negative impact on the criminal investigation. It would have been irresponsible to proceed with civil discovery without taking into account all relevant issues, including the ongoing and active criminal investigation.

Finally, it is important to reiterate that the video taken on Ms. Bland’s cell phone that has been the subject of recent media attention was in fact produced to the plaintiffs and all other parties in the civil litigation by Waller County on October 30, 2015 (see first attachment). Any claim of “concealment” of this video is demonstrably false and should be corrected.

Cannon Lambert, the Bland family lawyer, told the New York Times earlier this month he had not seen the cell phone video.

“I immediately called my co-counsel and asked whether he had seen it, and he hadn’t seen it either,” Lambert told the New York Times. 

KXAN reached out to Lambert about the letter and thumb drive DPS says Waller County sent him in 2015. KXAN has not yet heard back.

Coleman was behind The Sandra Bland Act, which increased de-escalation training for law enforcement, jail training and led to the collection of new traffic stop data.

“They [DPS] said if they gave the video it would have an impact on the criminal case … well, it should have had an impact on the criminal case,” Coleman said. “That’s the whole point. I’m sure that most people would have been more incensed that trooper Encinia got off so light.”

Friday’s hearing is open to the public and will be held in the lower level of the Texas capitol extension. It is slated to begin at 8 a.m.

A brief timeline of the Bland case

  • July 10, 2015: DPS Trooper Brian Encinia pulled Sandra bland over and arrested her on allegations that she assaulted him. 
  • July 13, 2015: Authorities say Bland committed suicide and was found hanging in her cell.
  • Aug. 4, 2015: Bland’s family files a federal lawsuit against Trooper Encinia.
  • Dec.11, 2015: A grand jury began looking into the death of Sandra Bland. 
  • December 17, 2015: Bland’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Waller County, DPS, and Trooper Encinia. 
  • Dec. 21, 2015: The grand jury refused to indict Encinia in Sandra Bland’s death.
  • Jan. 7, 2016: Encinia was indicted on perjury charges, fired by DPS and turned himself into jail. 
  • March 2016: Encinia pleads not guilty of perjury. 
  • Sept. 2016: The Bland family settled its civil suit for $1.9 million. 
  • June 2017: Perjury charge against Encinia is dropped after he surrendered his TCOLE license. 

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