Bland died after three days in a Texas jail, and authorities claim she committed suicide--a finding her family, understandably, does not buy. (A grown woman can hang herself with a flimsy trash bag? Seems hard to believe.) I managed to survive my five-month stay in the Shelby County, Alabama, jail, but the similarities between the Bland traffic stop and the two I experienced are enough that . . . well, I hardly slept last night, and I doubt I will do much better tonight.
What is the key similarity? The Bland dash-cam video shows that the Texas officer provoked the whole thing. She should have gotten away in about five minutes' time with a warning for allegedly not signaling while making a lane change. But the officer's hyper-sensitivity and stubbornness turned a simple matter into a national story--and a tragic death.
I witnessed similar law-enforcement behavior on two occasions, as Alabama officers sparked incidents where evidence suggests they had no lawful grounds to stop me at all.
The key sequence in the Bland video begins at the 8:40 mark, as trooper Brian Encina approaches her stopped car after writing up a warning in his vehicle. Encina notes that Bland seems irritated, and she matter-of-factly responds that she is irritated--because the only reason she changed lanes was because she saw the officer approaching rapidly in her rear-view mirror and thought he needed to get by. (You can view the video at the end of this post.)
Encina then asks Bland to put out her cigarette, and she objects--noting, correctly, that she's in her car and she doesn't have to put out her cigarette. Encina immediately asks her to step out of the car, and when Bland (again, correctly) states that there is no lawful reason for her to step out of the car, Encina opens the door and starts reaching for her, says he's going to drag her out, and even threatens her with a taser. From there, the encounter turns really ugly, with Bland placed in handcuffs, even though it's hard to see evidence of her committing any crime.
This is very much like my first experience in Alabama, with officer Mike DeHart. My wife, Carol, and I were stopped at the North Shelby County Library, after DeHart claimed he had witnessed me roll through a stop sign (while making a left-hand turn at a "T" intersection). I immediately told DeHart I had not rolled through that stop sign, but he took my license and registration and returned to his vehicle. He came back to us and handed me a warning and returned my license and registration--meaning the traffic stop, by law, was over.
But DeHart didn't let it end there. He handed me a stack of papers and smugly said, "Mr. Shuler, you've been served." I looked at the papers, saw the names Rob Riley and Liberty Duke, and quickly realized DeHart had stopped us only to "serve" a complaint in a lawsuit. The whole story about rolling through a stop sign was a lie. As DeHart walked back to his vehicle I called him a "fraud" and a few other choice words. I got out of my vehicle, went to his patrol vehicle (where he was sitting with the windows up) and let him know in loud, clear, and colorful language that I knew he was a liar and a cheat.
As I was walking away, DeHart got out of his vehicle and directed me to spread my hands across the trunk of our car. I ignored him and opened the door to get back in our car. Like Ms. Bland, I wasn't about to let a corrupt cop treat me like a criminal when I hadn't violated any law. I think DeHart uttered something about "disorderly conduct," which is complete BS--and I knew it.
I tried to shut the door to our car, but DeHart blocked the door with his hip, reached for his handcuffs with one hand and reached for me with the other. He would have arrested me, but Mrs. Schnauzer had what I call an "Exorcist" moment. She started screeching, screaming, and seething to the point that I thought her head was going to start spinning. She made a motion to get out of the car as if she was going to jump on DeHart. With parents and children heading into the front door of the library not too far away, DeHart seemed to realize that creating such a scene was not a good idea, and he let us go.
Was I angry, like Ms. Bland? Yes. Did I have a right to be angry, like Ms. Bland, in the face of a lying, cheating law-enforcement officer who was trying to provoke me? Yes. Did I break any laws? No, and neither did Ms. Bland.
My second encounter came on the night of my arrest, October 23, 2013, when officer Chris Blevins drove at a high speed down our driveway and tried to block me from entering our garage. He failed to block me, so I drove on in, and Blevins exited his vehicle, came to the edge of our garage, and asked me to step outside.
As happened in the Bland case, Blevins gave me no lawful reason that I had to leave my own home. He showed no warrant, didn't say he had a warrant, said nothing about why he was even on my property. I said I wasn't coming outside and instructed him to get out of our house (the garage is under our house, part of the structure). Blevins came in and proceeded to beat me up, knocking me to a concrete floor three times, dousing me with pepper spray, and placing me in handcuffs before dragging me out of the garage--all over alleged contempt of court in a civil matter (the Riley/Duke lawsuit).
I hope Sandra Bland's family gets to the bottom of what really happened to her in Texas. I hope to someday get to the bottom of what happened to me in Alabama. Both cases present clear evidence of civil wrongs--and I suspect criminal actions are involved, as well.