The Texas state trooper who pulled over Sandra Bland was indicted on suspicion of perjury Wednesday, making him the only official criminally charged after Bland’s death last summer fueled criticism of police and their treatment of minorities.
The Texas Department of Public Safety announced it would move to fire Trooper Brian T. Encinia.
The indictment marked the conclusion of the grand jury’s investigation of the case.
If convicted of the misdemeanor perjury charge, Encinia faces up to a year in jail, according to Warren Diepraam, a spokesman for the Waller County district attorney’s office. The grand jury declined to indict on a charge of aggravated perjury, Diepraam said.
Bland, 28, who was black, was found hanging by a plastic bag in her jail cell three days after she was arrested July 10 during a routine traffic stop about 55 miles west of Houston.
Encinia pulled over Bland for making an improper lane change. The confrontation that ensued, which led to Bland's arrest on suspicion of assaulting Encinia, was captured on a dashboard camera video that went viral.
The charge against Encinia stemmed from a one-page probable cause affidavit that Encinia filed with jail officials justifying Bland's arrest, in which he wrote that the reason he removed her from her car was to conduct a safer traffic investigation, said special prosecutor Shawn McDonald.
“The grand jury found that statement to be false,” McDonald said.
After she was arrested, Bland was taken to the Waller County Jail in nearby Hempstead, where she was unable to make $500 bail. Officials said Bland hanged herself with a plastic bag.
Bland’s family and Black Lives Matter supporters questioned why she had been arrested at all, with some asking whether she had taken her own life. At the time Bland was stopped, she had just accepted a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.
The grand jury’s indictment came after it decided last month that no felony was committed by the Waller County Sheriff's Office or jailers in connection with Bland’s death.
Larkin Eakin Jr., Encinia's attorney, said the trooper planned to turn himself in once the warrant was served and plead not guilty.
"He does vociferously deny that there was anything false about his statement," Eakin said.
Eakin represented Encinia in the administrative investigation, during which he said he saw "enhanced," or less-blurry, video footage of the traffic stop. He said it showed Encinia had Bland leave her car after he saw her reaching for her handbag, where he feared she might have a weapon.
"She made a motion with her hand toward her handbag and he was concerned," Eakin said. "That's why he asked her to exit the vehicle."
Cannon Lambert, an attorney for the Bland family, had not been hopeful the grand jury would indict Encinia. He said he supported the charge but added that he thought Encinia also should have been charged with false arrest, battery and abuse of police powers.
Lambert added that Bland’s family still had “a lot more questions” about what happened during the secret grand jury proceedings.
Lambert applauded the move to fire Encinia, but said “it’s about six months too late. They saw what they saw in the video six months ago.”
He said the Bland family planned to hold a news briefing at his Chicago office on Thursday to express concern about the outcome of the grand jury.
“The family is pretty perturbed about the timing” of the trooper's proposed firing, Lambert said. "They feel like they're being strung along.”
The move to fire the trooper was also praised by Tarsha Jackson, Harris County director of the Texas Organizing Project, which promotes social and economic equality for low- to moderate-income Texans.
“Today’s indictment and firing of Trooper Encinia is a solid first step toward achieving justice in the untimely death of Sandra Bland,” Jackson said in a statement.
“It is unacceptable and reprehensible for Encinia to have lied in his report of what happened when he pulled over Ms. Bland," she said. "The grand jury has acknowledged this perjury and made the right call. DPS also made the right call to fire Encinia, something that TOP has been calling for since Bland’s death.”
Bland’s relatives have demanded investigative records in the case as part of the wrongful-death lawsuit they filed in August against the Waller County Sheriff's Office, jail officials and the Texas Department of Public Safety. A federal judge in Houston set the case for trial Jan. 23, 2017.
Last month, attorneys representing Waller County filed a motion seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Bland took her life because she was distraught that her family members didn’t bail her out of jail.
In the wrongful-death suit, Encinia will be represented by the Texas attorney general’s office, but in the criminal case, he will have a private defense attorney, the attorney general’s office said Wednesday.
Five Houston-area lawyers were appointed as independent special prosecutors to present the criminal case to the grand jury and will now prosecute Encinia.
After the announcement of the indictment Wednesday, McDonald described the grand jury process “as thorough as five people can possibly make it."
“We combed through hundreds, if not thousands, of pages, hours of video — brought forth every piece of evidence we could get our hands on and brought it to the grand jury so they could make a decision,” McDonald said.
McDonald acknowledged that Bland’s relatives had publicly criticized the grand jury process, and said prosecutors tried to address their concerns.
The grand jury met for its fourth and final time Wednesday morning after deciding last month that no felony was committed by the Waller County Sheriff's Office or jailers in connection with Bland’s death.
Following last month’s grand jury meetings, protesters gathered outside the Waller County Courthouse and marched in a Houston park to condemn the process and call for the U.S. Justice Department to start an independent investigation.
Hannah Bonner of Houston's St. John's United Methodist Church called the indictment “a slap on the wrist."
“They wanted to be able to say they handed down an indictment,” said Bonner, who was among those who have previously protested outside the Waller County Sheriff’s Office. “There should have been an indictment for pulling her from her car.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety did not release details on its decision to begin termination proceedings for Encinia, other than to say that it had conducted a criminal investigation into the traffic stop and Bland’s death and turned the investigation over to the grand jury.
Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw previously said Encinia violated department standards and the department's courtesy policy during the stop and had placed him on administrative duty pending the outcome of the investigation.
Hennessy-Fiske reported from Houston and Pearce from Los Angeles.