Your Rights in a Vehicle Stop: Contrasting Situations

Your Rights in a Vehicle Stop: Contrasting Situations.

On July 18, 2013, a Texas officer stopped a young woman named Sandra Bland for failing to signal a lane change. The officer’s dash-cam activated, capturing most of the audio and video during the incident.  Ms. Bland complied by pulling over, and was smoking a cigarette when the officer approached.  She appeared to have a valid license and other required documents, so the officer decided to give her a warning instead of a ticket.  That’s when the encounter changed…

The officer told her to get out of her car and asked her to put out her cigarette. Ms. Bland did not immediately exit her car, asking if this was really necessary on an illegal lame change.  She also refused to put out the cigarette, stating she had a right to smoke in her car. (FYI, she was correct about that).  However, what she said apparently enraged the officer, who yelled at her to get out of the car and threatened to “light her up.”  Despite the fact Ms. Bland complied and exited the car, the officer took her to the ground with his knee on her back and then arrested her for the Texas equivalent of “resisting arrest” or “disobeying police order.” After her arrest, she could not pay the $5000 bail, and was taken into custody.  Three days later, she apparently killed herself or was somehow hanged. All for failing to signal on a lane change.

There is clearly so much wrong here it is difficult where to start. Yes, it was a Caucasian officer and an African-American arrestee, but this case made it through the initial court hearing. A judge set the bail amount for her conduct at this hearing, and likely did not have the whole picture.  He or she only saw an officer’s claim that Ms. Bland “resisted arrest.”

Can police order you out of your car for a routine traffic infraction?  In Pennsylvania vs. Mimms, the U.S. Supreme Court established that an officer can ask every person in the car to get out of the vehicle if the stop is lawful.  The court felt the brief invasion of drivers’ and passengers’ rights is minimally invasive compared to the question of officer safety. But the Court envisioned a situation like a solo officer stopping a man on a lonely stretch of highway, or at night in a high crime urban area, or any other legitimate reason an officer may be concerned for his safety.

In fact, several officers a year get shot by drivers in “routine car stops.”  Officers (understandably so) now routinely wear body armor. Take what happened less than 10 days later, on July 22, 2015, where a driver stopped for speeding killed Sgt. Scott Lunger in Hayward, California.  But Sandra Bland was a 28-year-old woman who seemed shocked that she really had to stop smoking and either get out of her car or go to jail for a lane change.  There was certainly no suggestion that officer feared for his safety.

Two routine car stops, two contrasting tragic deaths. A young woman dies in jail in Texas. A young officer dies in Hayward, CA just 4 days later.

If you or someone you know is accused of a crime, arrested, or contacted by police, contact San Jose criminal defense attorney Maureen Baldwin at (408) 279-4450 to learn your options today!