A Mississippi federal judge is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects police officers from civil suits over abuse.
U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves sits on the federal bench in the Southern District of Mississippi and dismissed a portion of a lawsuit that claimed a white police officer violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a Black motorist. Reeves criticized qualified immunity, which forced him to exonerate 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 in a 72-page opinion. "The officer’s motion seeking as much is therefore granted.
"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."
South Carolina resident Clarence Jamison claims that officer Nick McClendon violated his constitutional rights after pulling him over in Pelahatchie, Mississippi, and searching his car for drugs without any basis for suspicion.
"I do not envy the task before the Supreme Court," Reeves 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."
Qualified immunity has been the topic of debate and target of criticism since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in the custody of a white Minneapolis police officer. Its critics have said the doctrine unfairly shields police officers who've committed wrongdoing against citizens from facing civil punishment. The only way qualified immunity can be toppled in court is if a clear legal precedent shows that the officer's conduct was illegal.
"Governing law requires that Officer McClendon be given qualified immunity in this case, regardless of whether there was a constitutional violation,"McClendon's defense attorney said during a 2018 court filing.
Reeves said he couldn't punish McClendon because qualified immunity doctrine blocked him from doing so. But he urged the Supreme Court to remove the shield that protects officers who commit wrongdoing on the job.
"Those who violate the constitutional rights of our citizens must be held accountable," Reeves wrote. "When that day comes we will be one step closer to that more perfect Union."
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