HOUSTON (AP) — Attorneys for the state of Texas have asked a judge to dismiss a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the mother of a woman who was found dead in her jail cell days after her violent arrest during a traffic stop.
Sandra Bland, 28, died in her Waller County jail cell on July 13, three days after her confrontation with a state trooper, Brian Encinia, who pulled her over for a minor traffic infraction. Dashcam video shows their interaction quickly turned into a confrontation when the trooper asked Bland to extinguish her cigarette. Bland was arrested for assault and remained jailed when she couldn't come up with about $500 for bail.
Bland's mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, sued the state police agency, Encinia, Waller County and two jail employees of the county about 50 miles northwest of Houston. She contends that Encinia falsified the assault allegation to take Bland into custody and that jail personnel failed to keep her daughter safe. An autopsy determined Bland hanged herself from a partition in the cell with a garbage bag.
In a court filing Tuesday, the Texas Attorney General's office asked U.S. District Judge David Hittner to dismiss the complaint, arguing that state agencies are constitutionally immune from such lawsuits filed in federal court.
Assistant Attorney General Seth Byron Dennis also argues that Encinia has qualified immunity, meaning he is "shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as (his) conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."
In addition, Dennis said the Bland family's lawsuit raised vague and insufficient allegations of civil rights violations.
"Trooper Encinia should not be made to guess or speculate," he said.
Dennis asked that if the court refused to dismiss the lawsuit against Encinia, that lawyers for the family be directed to specify what constitutional claims they are alleging and "what (Encinia) did to violate that right."
"Obviously we part ways with their view," Cannon Lambert, the Bland family's lead attorney, said Wednesday. "We will broach the fact that they've filed what they've filed and I suspect we'll be given the opportunity to respond in writing, which we will do."
He said investigations of the case were continuing.
"We're looking forward to getting a lot of information ... in the near future," Lambert said. "As far as I understand, there's not been a conclusion reached."
In a separate filing last week, an attorney for Waller County, Larry Simmons, said the county had procedures in place for screening people being detained, that Bland denied she was contemplating suicide and that she "provided inconsistent information to the jailers regarding her relevant history."
"Ms. Bland was treated with courtesy and respect, and was provided benefits and accommodations beyond what the law and county policies require," he said.
Simmons said in the court filing there was no evidence the county was deliberately indifferent to Bland's rights and the lawsuit claims "fail as a matter of law."
Bland's arrest during a traffic stop and investigation of her death occurred amid heightened national scrutiny of police and their dealings with black suspects, especially those who have been killed by officers or die in police custody.