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Judge, Shielding Cop Via 'Qualified Immunity,' Asks Whether It Belongs In 'Dustbin'

A San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy at a Black Lives Matter protest this month. The national debate following the death of George Floyd has raised questions about 'qualified immunity' for cops.
Christian Monterrosa
A San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy at a Black Lives Matter protest this month. The national debate following the death of George Floyd has raised questions about 'qualified immunity' for cops.

Seven years ago, a white police officer pulled over Black man driving through Mississippi in a newly purchased Mercedes convertible.

For nearly two hours, the officer pushed to search the vehicle, allegedly lied to its owner, enlisted a drug detection dog and ultimately left the exhausted man by the side of the road to put his car back together again.

The Mercedes had been ripped apart and the driver was so shaken he sued the police officer.

This week, a federal judge reluctantly concluded the officer should benefit from qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields law enforcement from many claims of wrongdoing on the job.

But the way Judge Carlton Reeves made that determination is drawing national attention to the case.

In a legal opinion that traced the racist origins of policing, the Black Lives Matter movement and Mississippi's own tragic history of traffic stops, the judge urged the Supreme Court to revisit the issue of qualified immunity and to toss it into "the dustbin of history."

"Immunity is not exoneration," Reeves wrote. "And the harm in this case to one man sheds light on the harm done to the nation by this manufactured doctrine."

Read Reeves' ruling here.

The traffic stop

Police stopped Clarence Jamison, a welder, in 2013, as he returned home to South Carolina after a vacation in Phoenix.

Richland Police Officer Nick McClendon said the temporary tag on the car was hard to see. A background check and a criminal history check came back all clear. But the officer asked to search the car for drugs, cash, or other items.

McClendon also lied to the driver, Jamison said, and claimed he had gotten a phone call about 10 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the car, insisting that he search the vehicle.

Ultimately, Jamison gave up the fight.

In his ruling, Reeves said he doubted that search was really voluntary. The judge pointed out that South Carolina's Sen. Tim Scott, the lone Black Republican U.S. Senator, had been pulled over seven times in one year — and that he'd even been stopped in the Capitol building.

"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, bird-watching, 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?" the judge wrote.

"Who can say that he felt free to say no to an armed Officer McClendon?"

The site of the Jamison traffic stop also carried historical echoes.

The judge noted that Pelahatchie, Mississippi, is only an hour away from Philadelphia, where civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were stopped and ultimately killed during Freedom Summer in 1964.

Reeves' opinion didn't mention the timing explicitly, but his ruling came out the same day their bodies were discovered after an intense search by the FBI 56 years ago.

"For Black people, this isn't mere history," the judge wrote. "It's the present."

Still, Reeves wrote, he was forced to dismiss the heart of the case because under the qualified immunity doctrine, plaintiffs need to prove law enforcement violated a "clearly established right" by finding other legal cases that match the specific facts in their cases to demonstrate the police officer was acting unreasonably.

Even as he ruled the qualified immunity doctrine applied in this case, the judge questioned whether police should be able to use it.

"The U.S. Congress of the Reconstruction era stood up to the white supremacists of its time when it passed Section 1983," Reeves wrote. "The late Congressman John Lewis stared down the racists of his era when he marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The Supreme Court has answered the call of history as well, most famously when it issued its unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education and resigned the 'separate but equal' doctrine to the dustbin of history. The question of today is whether the Supreme Court will rise to the occasion and do the same with qualified immunity."

Fate unclear in Washington

It's not clear the current Supreme Court will take up his plea. The justices declined to hear several cases challenging the qualified immunity doctrine this year.

Reeves, 56, attended Jackson State University, as the first person in his family to attend college, and the University of Virginia. President Obama appointed him to a lifetime seat on the federal bench in 2010.

Five years later, as he sentenced three men who yelled "white power" after they ran over a Black man with their truck, the judge delivered a speech about how "Mississippi soil had been stained with the blood" of freedom fighters and lesser known people of color.

Last year, as he received special honors from the University of Virginia School of Law, Reeves called on the audience to defend judges against political attacks by President Trump and threats by other people across the nation.

"The proof is in my mailbox, in the countless letters of hatred," Reeves said. "The deliverers of hate, who send these messages, aim to bully and scare judges."

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.