Kurt Kerns, Attorney at Law
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Questions in Bland case continue

The death of Sandra Bland in Texas last month highlights a problem with the state of the law in Kansas and throughout the nation. A U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1997 is behind the officer's decision to take into custody Bland, which played a role in her death.

The 1997 case, Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, involved a woman who was stopped for failing to wear a seat belt, an offense that was a misdemeanor. This would normally result in a small fine. In Atwater, the officer apparently became upset and "wanted to teach her a lesson."

And the Court permitted it on the grounds that it was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, seemingly because they did not want to deal with the complexity of a "balancing test."

In Atwater, the officer had no specific reason to take the woman into custody, other than the subjective feeling of needing to teach the woman a lesson. Given the vast number of potential traffic infractions available, a case like Atwater allows the police virtually unlimited discretion to make custodial arrests, no matter how absurd.

That unfettered discretion is what allowed Bland's arrest over a lane change made without a signal. She was ultimately arrested for assault on a public servant, but it appears the officer escalated the confrontation, and a video of the incident includes his threatening to use a taser and images of the police officer standing over her as she lay on the ground, handcuffed.

Police may need to arrest individuals, but Bland's case raises many questions. Why did a simple traffic stop, where there were no compelling issues of public safety, deteriorate into an arrest?

And why was she booked into jail for a minor traffic offense? If the officer felt the need to "teach her a lesson," surely a booking and release with a future court date would have been sufficient.

Her alleged suicide in the cell raises further questions police supervision and intensifies the pall of tragedy that hangs over this incident.

Source: texastribune.com, "McCraw Hammered at Hearing on Bland Case," Terri Langford and Liz Crampton, July 30, 2015

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