I'm a retired attorney. I practiced law for 35 years. I was a full time county prosecutor right after I got out of law school, then after that, for about 20 years, I was a part-time municipal prosecutor, handling mostly routine traffic violations, in court, on a weekly basis. During my career I also taught policing techniques, procedures, and laws. I have dealt with cops a lot. And I know how to read a traffic code.
On the video, after being told that she was being stopped for failure to signal a lane change, Ms. Bland tells the arresting officer, in essence, that she was getting out of his way; that she saw his squad car coming up behind her in a hurry, and she moved over to let him by. That's exactly what she should have done in the circumstances, and doing so did not violate Texas law. It also did not justify the stop.
The portion of the Texas statutes known as The Rules of the Road can be found at:
It reads much like the traffic code in my state and in most other states that I have read and studied. The section of it that covers the signalling of lane changes provides:
Sec. 545.104. SIGNALING TURNS; USE OF TURN SIGNALS. (a) An operator shall use the signal authorized by Section 545.106 [the vehicle's lighted turn signal or a hand signal] to indicate an intention to turn, change lanes, or start from a parked position.
Nothing ambiguous about that requirement. However, there is another provision that mandates what a driver is to do when being approached by a police vehicle:
Sec. 545.156. VEHICLE APPROACHED BY AUTHORIZED EMERGENCY VEHICLE. (a) On the immediate approach of an authorized emergency vehicle using audible and visual signals that meet the requirements of Sections 547.305 and 547.702 [lights and sirens], or of a police vehicle lawfully using only an audible signal, an operator, unless otherwise directed by a police officer, shall:
(1) yield the right-of-way;
(2) immediately drive to a position parallel to and as close as possible to the right-hand edge or curb of the roadway clear of any intersection; and
(3) stop and remain standing until the authorized emergency vehicle has passed.
First, under subsection (2), "immediately" means just that. Not after the driver scratches her head, or turns down the radio, or signals a lane change, or does anything else, but get over to the far right now, first thing. That's what it says. What lane the driver may be moving from is irrelevant
The waters are somewhat muddied in these circumstances, however, because there is no evidence on the video that the officer was running with lights or sirens as he came up behind Ms. bland's car, and Section 545.156 mandates immediately pulling over when the emergency vehicle is using at least an audible signal. That said, what Ms. Bland, looking in her rear view mirror (which, according to her statement to the officer in the video, is what she was doing) did see the police car do is this:
-It made an illegal u-turn, starting from from the far right lane, beyond even the solid white line (a bike lane?), almost to the right curb, and then across the right lane, the designated turning lane, and the oncoming lane, and then well into both lanes of the perpendicular street, before completing it. See Section 545.101. There is no indication if this turn was first signalled by the officer or not, another potential violation here.
-It was speeding. The video reveals that this is a 20 MPH zone. Whatever speed the squad car was actually going, given how fast the trees fly by and he catches up to her, he was doing more than 20.
But other sections of the Texas code say that the police can ignore these and most other traffic laws when they need to. They're supposed to use lights, or at least a siren, when they do, per Section 546.003, but even then they are given broad discretion to not use them. Section 546.004 essentially gives them discretionary carte blanche to do so.
So, here's what Sandra Bland's circumstances were at the time: She sees a squad car pull a sudden and radical u-turn and speed up behind her. It is maneuvering like it's on its way to an emergency. We see from the video, from when she first makes her right turn onto the street on which she was stopped, that her windows are rolled up, blocking outside noise. It is in the 90's in Waller County that day, so it's safe to assume that her air conditioning was on, adding more inside background noise to her environment. Maybe her radio was on as well. Is this squad car she sees coming up behind her like this running a siren, and she just can't hear it yet? Or is the officer exercising his discretion and not using it at all?
Either way, her safest and most reasonable maneuver is to do just what she did: get out of his way. It was obviously not a lane change under Section 545.104. She didn't need to change lanes. It was a move-over under Section 545.156. No signal required, or even permitted.
Sounds pretty compelling, huh? Or is it just more legal mumbo-jumbo? Matt Taibbi, I think, nailed it when he said, in his article, that the law, "...is so broad and littered with so many tiny technical prohibitions that a determined enough police officer can stop and/or arrest pretty much anybody at any time."
The cops I used to prosecute for readily admitted to me on many occasions that one of the easiest way to get a stop on a vehicle that they thought needed to be checked out was to suddenly speed up behind it, wait for it to move over, and nail it for the failure to signal a lane change. Once in traffic court it may or may not stand up. A fair judge will NG it. A fair prosecutor will dump it before trial and tell his cops to knock off the bullshit.
Either way, for the one writing the ticket, it really doesn't matter. After all, the point isn't the petty traffic violation. It's the stop. It's the "checking out" during the stop, the possibility of discovering something bigger and more criminal, be it a suspended license, or alcohol on the breath, or an outstanding warrant. Out-of-state plates are always way up there on the list of potentials, too. That's the point. Then again, some times it's nothing more than an opportunity to jack somebody who looks or acts like he--or she--could use a good jacking. That's the point, too.
There is nothing about Sandra Bland's murder, or about the events that led up to it, that can or should be overlooked, justified or excused. That's my point
5:36 PM PT: Update: My first diary, and on the Rec list. I am honored. Your comments are fantastic. What a great discussion of a difficult topic.
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