Federal judge urges Supreme Court to overturn qualified immunity

A federal judge in Mississippi on Tuesday urged the Supreme Court to overturn the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which effectively shields police officers from civil litigation over alleged abuses.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, who sits on the federal bench in the Southern District of Mississippi, dismissed part of a lawsuit alleging that a white police officer violated a black motorist's Fourth Amendment rights. Reeves used his 72-page opinion to deliver an impassioned critique of the doctrine that forced him to grant immunity to the officer.

"This Court is required to apply the law as stated by the Supreme Court. Under that law, the officer who transformed a short traffic stop into an almost two-hour, life-altering ordeal is entitled to qualified immunity," Reeves wrote. "The officer’s motion seeking as much is therefore granted."

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"But let us not be fooled by legal jargon," he continued. "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."

The lawsuit was brought by a South Carolina man named Clarence Jamison against Nick McClendon, an officer who pulled him over in Pelahatchie, Miss., in 2013 as he was driving home to South Carolina from a vacation in Arizona.

Jamison alleges that McClendon violated his constitutional rights by pulling him over and subjecting his car to a thorough search for drugs without any reasonable basis for suspicion.

Reeves's opinion comes as the qualified immunity doctrine has faced renewed scrutiny following nationwide protests against police brutality.

The doctrine effectively grants immunity from civil lawsuits to police officers and other public officials unless a plaintiff can show that there's clear legal precedent establishing that the alleged conduct is illegal.

Critics say the formulation makes it unreasonably difficult to hold law enforcement officials accountable, arguing that it creates a Catch-22 that prevents any judicial precedent against police misconduct from being established in the first place.

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In a 2018 court filing, McClendon's attorneys argued, "Governing law requires that Officer McLendon be given qualified immunity in this case, regardless of whether there was a constitutional violation."

On Tuesday, Reeves, who was appointed to the court by former President Obama, acknowledged that his hands were tied but argued that it was urgent for the Supreme Court to remove barriers for holding police officers accountable.

"I do not envy the task before the Supreme Court," he wrote. "Overturning qualified immunity will undoubtedly impact our society. Yet, the status quo is extraordinary and unsustainable. Just as the Supreme Court swept away the mistaken doctrine of 'separate but equal,' so too should it eliminate the doctrine of qualified immunity."

The Supreme Court has passed on some recent opportunities to hear cases in its upcoming term challenging qualified immunity, though some of the justices have called for revisiting its past decisions outlining the doctrine.

Reeves acknowledged that it would be difficult to overturn qualified immunity but maintained that it was imperative given a growing consensus among the nation's jurists that the doctrine is unjust.

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