HOUSTON (CN) - The former Texas state trooper made infamous by his arrest of Sandra Bland has two weeks to explain why a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the dead woman's mother should be stayed, a federal judge ruled.
Brian Encinia pulled Bland over on July 10, 2015, for failing to signal a lane change and arrested her after they argued and tussled. She was found dead in her cell three days later. Officials said Bland, 28, had hanged herself with a plastic bag.
Bland died in the jail in Hempstead, the county seat, an hour northwest of Houston.
Bland's family and friends have challenged the official narrative, saying she had no history depression.
The Black Lives Matter movement embraced Bland's story after a dashcam video of the traffic stop went viral. The footage shows Encinia threaten Bland with a Taser, then pull her out of the car after she refuses to get out and put out her cigarette.
"I will light you up," Encinia screams in the video. "You're doing all this for a failure to signal ... I can't wait to go to court," Bland fumes. Encinia claims Bland tried to kick him.
Fallout from the arrest has come in waves for Encinia. Bland's mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, sued Encinia, the Texas Department of Public Safety, Waller County and two of its jailers on Aug. 4, 2015.
A Waller County grand jury indicted Encinia on Jan. 6 for misdemeanor perjury. The one-count indictment states that Encinia attested under oath in an arrest report that he "had Sandra Bland exit the vehicle to further conduct a safe traffic investigation ... such false statement being false in that [Encinia] removed Sandra Bland from her vehicle because he was angry that she would not put out her cigarette."
The Department of Public Safety announced it planned to fire Encinia after the perjury indictment came down and officially fired him on March 1. Encinia plans to appeal his termination to the Texas Public Safety Commission, a five-member board that oversees the department, his attorney Larkin Eakin said.
If convicted of the Class A misdemeanor, Encinia, faces a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine. Eakin said Encinia will plead not guilty at his March 22 arraignment.
Encinia's civil attorney, Seth Dennis with the Texas Attorney General's Office, urged U.S. District Judge David Hittner in February to stay the civil case until Encinia's criminal case is disposed.
Eakin told Courthouse News on Friday that he has no opinion about the stay motion because Encinia's civil and criminal defenses are separate matters.
Hittner was skeptical of the stay motion in open court.
"Basically why do you want a stay in this case?" Hittner asked Dennis during the February 18 hearing.
"I believe that obviously it arises from the same incident. And in order to ensure Encinia gets a fair criminal trial that at this point we stay the civil case and let the criminal case play out," Dennis said.
"Yes, but how long is that going to be? No telling. How long do you want to delay? Years?" Hittner asked.
"Until the completion of the criminal case, however long that may be," Dennis said.
Unconvinced, Hittner denied the motion Thursday, but gave Dennis two weeks to prove the criminal case calls for the "extraordinary remedy" of pausing the wrongful death lawsuit. It is a high hurdle, Hittner notes in the ruling, citing precedent from a 2009 case which states: "It is the rule, rather than the exception that civil and criminal cases proceed together."
The cast of defendants has expanded from Reed-Veal's original complaint. In her third amended complaint, filed on January 19, she dropped the Department of Public Safety as a defendant and added 10 employees of the Waller County Sheriff's Department, whom she claims were negligent or committed civil rights violations by "failing to provide adequate monitoring of Sandra Bland to keep her safe and secure" in the county jail.
Waller County moved to sever Reed-Veal's claims against itself and its sheriff's officers from her case against Encinia. The county claims in its motions that Bland's arrest and her jailhouse death were "two discreet occurrences" despite the extensive media coverage and protests that have treated the "traffic stop and Bland's subsequent suicide as one single event."
Waller County's attorney, Larry Simmons with Germer PLLC in Beaumont, offered an analogy during the February hearing: "It's really no different from someone being in a car wreck and that victim is transported to the hospital. At the hospital that patient is involved in a slip-and-fall. So she has a claim against the hospital. She has a claim for the car wreck. They're only related because they happened on the same day."
Reed-Veal's attorney, Larry Rogers, meanwhile, argued there's a strong link between the traffic stop and jailhouse tragedy. "The problem is this is one continuum that leads to an injury and ultimately the death of Ms. Bland. It's not a separate incident. In fact the way and manner in which she is housed is specifically tied to what Officer Encinia said [to the jailers]. He accused her of assaulting him," Rogers said at the hearing.
Waller County claims Encinia's perjury charge will also undercut its defense.
"The harm from this association is magnified by the fact that Encinia has now been indicted for his actions in connection with the arrest," Waller County states in its motion to sever, or alternatively, to split the case into separate trials.
Hittner denied the motions on Thursday with a 2-page order that's absent of explanation.
Due to the public outcry over Bland's death, the FBI helped the Texas Rangers in their investigation into it and reviewed footage from the Waller County Jail.
Hittner ordered the FBI on Thursday to let Reed-Veal's attorneys review in his chambers a report on Bland's death compiled by the Texas Rangers.
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