Prohibited From Holding Police Officer to Account, Federal Judge Calls on Supreme Court to Overturn ‘Qualified Immunity’

“Those who violate the constitutional rights of our citizens must be held accountable. When that day comes we will be one step closer to that more perfect Union.”

By Julia Conley, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 8-7-2020


Handing down a ruling to dismiss a civil lawsuit which alleged a police officer violated a Black man’s Fourth Amendment rights during a traffic stop in 2013, a federal judge in Mississippi made clear that he sided with the plaintiff—and demanded the U.S. Supreme Court overturn legal precedent that makes it nearly impossible for the judicial system to hold officers accountable for rights violations. 

Calling for an end to qualified immunity, which dates back to a 1982 ruling and shields police from civil liability in most cases, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves turned his ruling into a plea for justice for plaintiff Clarence Jamison as well as countless other Black Americans who have faced violent abuse and deadly use of force by officers.

“That the Justices haven’t acted so far is perhaps understandable,” wrote Reeves. “Not only would they likely prefer that Congress fixes the problem, they also value stare decisis, the legal principle that means ‘fidelity to precedent.’

Stare decisis, however, ‘isn’t supposed to be the art of methodically ignoring what everyone knows to be true,’ the judge added, quoting Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. “Every judge must learn to live with the fact he or she will make some mistakes; it comes with the territory. But it is something else entirely to perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right. Let us waste no time in righting this wrong.”

Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, was among those who applauded Reeves’ “extraordinary opinion.”

Jamison’s case relates to a 2013 traffic stop in which Officer Nick McClendon pulled him over in Shreveport, Louisiana. McClendon allegedly lied to Jamison, telling him he’d received a tip that there were 10 kilos of cocaine in his Mercedes convertible, and demanded to search the vehicle.

McClendon aggressively searched the car, leaving $4,000 worth of damage and detaining Jamison for nearly two hours before leaving him on the side of the road, the interior of his car destroyed.

“Officer McClendon’s physical intrusion into Jamison’s car was an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” Reeves wrote, siding with Jamison.

Under the 1982 Supreme Court ruling in Harlow vs. Fitzgerald, however, Reeves was unable to hear the case.

“Judges have invented a legal doctrine to protect law enforcement officers from having to face any consequences for wrongdoing,” Reeves wrote. “The doctrine is called ‘qualified immunity.’ In real life it operates like absolute immunity.”

Reeves called on the Supreme Court to restore 42 USC Section 1983, “Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights,” which was passed by Congress during the Reconstruction era and held any government official liable for violating a person’s constitutional rights.

The law was effectively nullified in 1982 when the Court created qualified immunity to ensure police officers would not be subjected to frequent litigation and held personally liable for damages. Under the ruling, plaintiffs have to prove that it was “clearly established” that the officer’s actions amounted to a violation and was not simply part of the duties of law enforcement.

“Under that law, the officer who transformed a short traffic stop into an almost two-hour, life-altering ordeal is entitled to qualified immunity,” wrote Reeves. “But let us not be fooled by legal jargon. Immunity is not exoneration. And the harm in this case to one man sheds light on the harm done to the nation by this manufactured doctrine.”

Reeves began his ruling with a partial list of the Black Americans who have been killed by police officers in recent years.

Jamison “wasn’t suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill” or “sleeping in his bed,” as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were when they were killed earlier this year, Reeves wrote, pointing out the wide range of activities Black people have taken part in before being targeted by police.

In Jamison’s case, the judge wrote, he was stopped—and could easily have been killed as Floyd and Taylor were—simply because he was “a black man driving a Mercedes convertible.” By continuing to uphold qualified immunity, Reeves said, the Supreme Court is “slamming shut the courthouse doors” on victims of police violence and their families.

“Our courts should use their power to ensure Section 1983 serves all of its citizens as the Reconstruction Congress intended,” the judge wrote. “Those who violate the constitutional rights of our citizens must be held accountable. When that day comes we will be one step closer to that more perfect Union.”

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