Last year, a woman named Sandra Bland was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. After an ensuing—and heated—conversation recorded by dashcam, the police officer arrested Bland and took her to jail, where she was found dead in her cell three days later. The official listed cause of death was suicide, but for many, the circumstances surrounding her death, as well as the dashcam footage, made Sandra Bland another example of police brutality against African-Americans.
A grand jury cleared the arresting officer, Brian Encinia, of any culpability for her death. But he was later indicted for the class A misdemeanor of perjury for lying in a one-page affidavit that tried to justify his decision to arrest Bland. According to the New York Times, the state police agency plans to fire him, and if convicted, he could face could a one-year jail sentence and a fine of up to $4,000.
Perjury, or lying under oath in court, is often called “the forgotten offense” because it is not only widespread, but rarely prosecuted, especially in America, where it’s been a crime since 1790. According to an article from the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, prosecutions for perjury have traditionally been rare, with only 335 criminal cases total from 1966 to 1970.
The researchers explain why:
Most commentators attribute the absence of indictments and convictions for perjury to the highly technical nature of the offense. They point to problems in drafting indictments, in proving materiality of the alleged false testimony and in meeting the stringent evidentiary rules.
The case against Brian Encinia was able to overcome these challenges. Both the trooper’s affidavit, in writing, and the dashcam video were available, making discrepancies between the two pieces of evidence clear.
But a false statement by itself is not quite perjury—it has to affect the issue at hand, and people are usually not convicted for false statements that don’t influence the court. In this case, however, the account of what happened between the trooper and Sandra Bland was very relevant to establishing the circumstances surrounding her arrest and subsequent death.