U.S. District Court Judge Carlton W. Reeves placed the 2013 case alongside others that have sparked outrage, citing the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. He lamented that thousands had lost their lives to police use-of-force and countless others had been subject to misconduct by officers.
Even so, Reeves dismissed Jamison’s civil suit arguing that Richland police officer Nick McClendon had violated his rights. In an opinion released Monday, Reeves wrote that the case was a miscarriage of justice, but that his hands were tied by a once-obscure legal doctrine that is coming under increasing fire as the nation reckons with how to hold police responsible for misdeeds: qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity shields government officials from personal civil liability for carrying out their duties, unless the official violates a statutory or constitutional right clearly established by a previous case. The idea is to allow government officials wide latitude to do their jobs without being hamstrung by frequent and costly litigation.
But Reeves in his ruling and other critics claim that judges have effectively walled police officers off from accountability. He urged the Supreme Court to take up cases challenging qualified immunity. Some state legislatures are examining bills to weaken qualified immunity as well in the wake of Floyd’s killing, and activists have targeted it as a major goal for police overhaul.
“Under that law, the officer who transformed a short traffic stop into an almost two-hour, life-altering ordeal is entitled to qualified immunity,” wrote Reeves, who presides in the Southern District of Mississippi. “But 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.”
Reeves, who was nominated to the bench in 2010 by President Barack Obama, has not shied away from sharp opinions. He generated headlines last year when he likened President Trump’s attacks on the judiciary to those in previous decades by the Ku Klux Klan.
McClendon and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment. The Richland Police Department, where he works, declined to comment on the ruling.
Jamison was driving home to South Carolina from a vacation in Arizona when he was stopped by McClendon on July 29, 2013, according to the opinion. McClendon testified that he pulled Jamison over in Pelahatchie, Miss., because Jamison’s temporary tag was folded over so he couldn’t make out his license plate number.
McClendon testified that he ran Jamison’s driver’s license and plates before asking the driver if he could search his car for drugs or other contraband. McClendon said Jamison quickly agreed, but Jamison testified that McClendon asked him five times to search his car and told him falsely that he had received a call that there were 10 kilos of cocaine in the vehicle.
Feeling tired of the conversation, Jamison agreed to the search as long as he could watch what was going on, he testified during proceedings in the lawsuit.
McClendon testified that he found nothing during an extensive search, before using a dog to sniff the vehicle. After 1 hour 50 minutes, McClendon finally departed.
Jamison testified that he got an estimate that the search caused $4,000 worth of damage to the car — his convertible top had to be replaced and his seats restitched.
Jamison eventually sued McClendon and others, claiming that his constitutional rights were violated because the search was illegal and he was racially profiled.
But one by one, judges ruled that Jamison’s claims against McClendon had to be dismissed because of qualified immunity. Reeves’s ruling issued Monday was the final one, despite his misgivings. Over 72 pages, he traced the origins of qualified immunity in Reconstruction and how it has evolved to the current day. He cited a litany of cases where he thought the doctrine had thwarted justice.
“Just as the Supreme Court swept away the doctrine of ‘separate but equal,’ so too should it eliminate the doctrine of qualified immunity,” Reeves wrote.
Jamison did not respond to requests for an interview, and his attorney declined to comment, but he testified in the case that he was shaken by the incident. He recalled being disturbed after seeing a report of a man who was shot by police after a traffic stop.
“I don’t watch the news no more,” Jamison told a judge.