By Jaden Jarmel-Schneider
MISSISSIPPI – District Court Judge Carlton W. Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi delivered a powerful message condemning the United States’ “qualified immunity” doctrine in a court decision Tuesday.
The case’s Plaintiff, Clarence Jamison, was stopped by a white police officer, Nick McClendon, white, in Pelahatchie, Mississippi for a loose license plate in 2013. Despite finding no criminal record, the officer tore through Jamison’s car, holding him for 110 minutes.
“Thankfully, Jamison left the stop with his life,” Judge Reeves wrote. “Too many others have not.”
At the end of a 72-page decision, Judge Reeves granted the officer qualified immunity, but made clear that the legal doctrine tethering him to that decision was far from justified and represented an arcane and dangerous legal precedent.
“The Constitution says everyone is entitled to equal protection of the law – even at the hands of law enforcement. Over the decades, however, judges have invented a legal doctrine to protect law enforcement officers from having to face any consequences for wrongdoing. The doctrine is called ‘qualified immunity.’ In real life it operates like absolute immunity,” the federal judge said.
Qualified Immunity protects government officials from civil lawsuits for anything short of knowingly violating a person’s constitutional rights, a practice that Judge Reeves calls “a shield for these officers, protecting them from accountability.”
Although much of the stop and search interaction is undisputed, Jamison and McClendon’s accounts differ in a few key moments, both of which contributed to the ambiguity McClendon’s attorneys used to argue for qualified immunity.
The first came moments after McClendon began questioning Jamison outside of his car. Jamison reported that the officer asked for consent to search the car five times before Jamison relented and allowed for the search.
Officer McClendon, who admitted to searching for Jamison’s records in the El Paso Intelligence Center (“EPIC”) and the National Criminal Information Center (“NCIC”) without informing him, told the court that after explaining that he was searching for illegal narcotics and weapons in the car, Jamison consented to the search.
McClendon also admitted that despite finding no criminal record in the databases aside from a discrepancy in driver’s registration which was resolved, he continued with two searches of the car: first by himself, then with a canine unit.
The second large discrepancy in their accounts involves what happened between the first time Officer McClendon asked to search the car and when Jamison agreed. Jamison told the court that the officer reached his arm into the car before telling him several times that he had a phone call reporting 10 kilos of cocaine in the car – a lie, both of which happened before Jamison agreed to the search. Officer McClendon denies that either happened.
Jamison’s case brought three claims against Officer McClendon and the City of Pelahtchie, Mississippi (although the city was eventually dropped as a defendant): that the false stop violated the Jamison’s Fourth Amendment, that racial motivation behind the stop violated his 14th Amendment Rights, and that the Officer’s unlawful search of the car was unreasonable, caused significant damage, and therefore violated his Fourth Amendment Rights.
Counsel for Officer McClendon requested summary judgment but responded only to the first two claims. In September of 2018, the Court granted the Officer qualified immunity for the reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop, but requested to hear more argument about the third claim. The response to which was the motion that Judge Reeve’s granted this week.
The legal standard which Reeve’s considered in delivering this decision detailed the requirements that a movant must meet to prove that a government official violated a constitutional right to the degree that qualified immunity should no longer be granted. Specifically, the court considered Section 1 of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act (now U.S. Code Section 1983) which described the treatment of state officials who “deprived persons of their constitutional rights.”
Judge Reeves considered three legal issues related to this standard in reaching his decision: whether summary judgment for the search should be granted, whether the officer acted reasonably, and whether he had violated a “clearly established law” “beyond debate.”
To the first two, Judge Reeves determined that the initial stop was covered by qualified immunity but that the “physical intrusion” into and search of the car was an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. He also found that although Jamison claimed he consented involuntarily, which is non-legal consent under federal law, the factual discrepancies between Jamison and the Officer’s testimony was legitimate enough to stall a decision on the consent issue.
The third issue proved to be the most challenging. Judge Reeves wrote that for all the ways that Officer McClendon’s actions were unreasonable and in violation of the law, when the Court considers whether Officer McClendon violated “clearly established laws,” “qualified immunity analysis ends in Officer McClendon’s favor.” In other words, while the Officer violated laws during the 2013 stop, Jamison was unable to prove that the Officer acted in a way that a reasonable person would have understood violated the law.
Because of the ambiguity surrounding McClendon’s exact actions leading up to and during the search, Judge Reeves was unable to find that the Officer acted “objectively unreasonably” and therefore his actions did not violate a “clearly established law” “beyond debate.” On these grounds, the court granted Officer McClendon’s motion for qualified immunity.
To describe its shortcomings and ambiguities of the qualified immunity statutes, Judge Reeves detailed the grueling civil rights history leading up to the stop and search of Jamison and the continuing uphill battle activists continue to face in and out of the courts to fix Reconstruction-era civil rights legislation.
The legal standard which formed the foundation of Jamison’s case rested on Section 1983. Originally a section of the KKK Act, Section 1983 was the progeny of the Reconstruction-era legal culture which sought to ensure equal rights to Americans of all races.
As legislation following the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments brought about a wave of legal progressivism in the second half of the 19th century, it also empowered Black Americans to organize and bring actions to the courts. From the Citizen’s Committee’s effort to write an equal protection guarantee into Louisiana law to the Plessy v. Ferguson case which established the unjust “separate but equal” doctrine, the standard for holding government officials who violated the laws established during Reconstruction was continuously evolving.
Much of its practice was shaped by the violent reactions against Reconstruction which saw the rise of lynchings, mobbing, and anti-Black racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and Jeff Davis’s Guard. The courts and public quickly sided against the original intent of the Reconstruction-era legislation, beginning the modern practice of sheltering police officers and government officials from accountability.
As the murders of Black people rose precipitously across the country and witnesses refused to testify in fear of community retaliation, Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act to reinforce the equal protections that the Reconstruction-era amendments sought to create. 150 years later, Jamison invoked the first section of that act in his suit against Officer McClendon.
This precis of American history, which comprised more than half of Judge Reeve’s decision, was his effort to highlight the importance of contextualizing the present state of race politics, which he called “the elephant in the room,” in considering a legal statute that so negatively impacts Black Americans, especially in states like Mississippi where Jamison was stopped.
“Jamison was a Black man driving through Mississippi, a state known for the violent deaths of Black people and others who fought for their freedom… For Black people, this isn’t mere history. It’s the present,” he writes. ‘By the time Jamison was pulled over, more than 600 people had been killed by police officers in 2013 alone. Jamison was stopped just 16 days after the man who killed Trayvon Martin was acquitted.’”
To Judge Reeves, this historical contextualization is not about stirring emotions, though they undoubtedly should be stirred, it is about understanding legal concepts like consent, reasonableness, and freedom within a system that systematically subjugates people of color, explaining:
“In an America where Black people ‘are considered dangerous even when they are in their living rooms eating ice cream, asleep in their beds, playing in the park, standing in the pulpit of their church, birdwatching, exercising in public, or walking home from a trip to the store to purchase a bag of Skittles,’ who can say that Jamison felt free that night on the side of Interstate 20? Who can say that he felt free to say no to an armed Officer McClendon?”
While Judge Reeves did grant Officer McClendon qualified immunity, he used the decision as a platform to deliver a fierce criticism of qualified immunity and the reluctance by courts thus far to restructure the statutes that are meant to hold government officials accountable.
“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. As the Fourth Circuit concluded, ‘This has to stop.’”
He points out that qualified immunity procedurally disadvantages victims of police harassment by granting summary judgment to officers who based on merit alone, would go to trial. He notes that although a 2002 decision found that qualified immunity can be denied in “novel factual circumstances,” no court has done so in two decades.
In one 2019 case he cited, the Court found that a prison which kept a man in a feces-smeared cell without a bathroom hadn’t violated a constitutional right “beyond debate” because it was not specifically established that a six-day time frame for such an action constituted a constitutional violation. In another, the Court determined that although a correctional officer who sprayed a chemical agent in a prisoner’s face had broken a law, it was not “beyond debate” that he had done so.
At the very beginning of the decision, Judge Reeves invoked the names of America’s most recent victims murder by police officers.
“Clarence Jamison wasn’t jaywalking,” “That was Michael Brown,” in the footnote.
“He wasn’t outside playing with a toy gun.” “That was 12-year-old Tamir Rice,” in the footnote.
Calling on each action with which police officers justified the stops of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others, Judge Reeves noted that none had been committed by Jamison. Yet like the rest, for reasons undeserving of police intervention, Jamison was subjected to police behavior that more likely than not violated his constitutional rights
At the end of the decision, he called on the Supreme Court to exercise their judicial power and “rise to the occasion” to create long-lasting change by revisiting the qualified immunity statute.
“From Tik-Tok to the chambers of the Supreme Court, there is increasing consensus that qualified immunity poses a major problem to our system of justice,” he said.
Many of the current and former Supreme Court justices, including Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas, have already expressed criticism of the statute. In one recent statement, Justice Sotomayor described qualified immunity as a mechanism that “tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”
Revisiting qualified immunity is the civil rights reform that needs to happen in the 21st century, Judge Reeves argues. Much like the legal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned and rethought with Brown v. Education, this Supreme Court has the opportunity to eliminate a doctrine that was “designed to protect people from the government,” but has been reshaped “protect the government from the people.”
In the final line of the decision, Judge Reeves writes one final plea for change: “Let us waste no time in righting this wrong.”
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