The Supreme Court has drawn the doctrine of qualified immunity so broadly that police officers can almost never be held accountable in civil court for their abuses on the job. Since what the Supreme Court says, goes, lower-court judges are forced to let violent or racist or violent and racist police off the hook time after time. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves is apparently sick of that, and made it very clear in a new decision—even as he granted qualified immunity to an officer who violated the Constitution.
The beginning of Reeves’ decision is one gut-punch after another. “Clarence Jamison wasn’t jaywalking. He wasn’t playing outside with a toy gun. He didn’t look like a ‘suspicious person.’ He wasn’t suspected of ‘selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.’ He wasn’t suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.” Each of these lines is footnoted with the case of one or more Black men or boys killed by police under the named circumstances. “No,” Reeves concludes that section, “Clarence Jamison was a Black man driving a Mercedes convertible.” Outrage pours out of every line from the judge forced to make an unjust decision. “Let us not be fooled by legal jargon,” Reeves wrote. “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.”
Officer Nick McClendon gets qualified immunity for pulling Clarence Jamison over and keeping him at the side of the road for 110 minutes of “an armed police officer badgering him, pressuring him, lying to him, and then searching his car top-to-bottom for drugs.” For no reason other than that Jamison was a Black man in a Mercedes. But “This Court is required to apply the law as stated by the Supreme Court.” And that means McClendon evades accountability and Jamison doesn’t get justice.
McClendon claimed he stopped Jamison because the temporary tag on Jamison’s car “was folded over to where [he] couldn’t see it.” Jamison provided full paperwork on himself and the car including a bill of sale. McClendon ran Jamison’s information through multiple databases. Jamison came up clear in the first. But instead of letting him go, and before hearing from the second check, McClendon pressured Jamison to allow him to search the car, including by lying about a non-existent phone call alleging there were 10 kilos of cocaine in the car. After McClendon repeatedly lied to and pressured Jamison, he finally—under duress—agreed to the search.
After McClendon personally searched Jamison’s car, and did not find “anything suspicious whatsoever,” he then pressured Jamison to allow a canine search. When Jamison finally was allowed to go, and got home, he discovered that McClendon had done $4,000 in damage to his recently purchased car, and he personally faced the trauma of being a Black man subjected to a racist abuse of power by a police officer in a place and time in which such traffic stops can lead to death.
Judge Reeves goes deep on the sordid history of qualified immunity, before taking the traffic stop at issue before him step by step and concluding both that it involved “an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment” involving involuntary, coerced consent—and that McClendon is protected by qualified immunity until the Supreme Court overturns it. His decision is a sustained plea to the court to do exactly that, concluding “I do not envy the task before the Supreme Court. 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 it should eliminate the doctrine of qualified immunity.”
A majority of voters want to end qualified immunity. Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Justin Amash have sponsored legislation to end it. But for now—until either Congress or the Supreme Court acts—it gives police the right to commit gross abuses against civilians, abuses that in many cases are obviously and outrageously racist. It must go.