Federal Judge Calls for Qualified Immunity Reform


On the night of July 29, 2013, Clarence Jamison, a Black man driving home from his summer vacation, was stopped without cause in Mississippi. An armed white police officer named Nick McClendon pulled over Mr. Jamison, repeatedly lied to him about having received a report that “10 kilos of cocaine” were in his car, ripped apart the interior of his vehicle, and enlisted a drug detection dog. The search uncovered nothing. For nearly two hours, Mr. Jamison, terrified and exhausted, was forced to stand on the side of a busy highway in the dark.

Traumatized by the encounter and left with a damaged vehicle, Mr. Jamison filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a statute passed by Congress during Reconstruction to vindicate the civil rights of African Americans whose rights were being violated because of their race.

Last week, Mr. Jamison learned that he would be blocked from suing the officer and would not get any compensation for the damages he experienced.

In a 72-page order, Judge Carlton Reeves of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi concluded that “the officer who transformed a short traffic stop into an almost two-hour, life altering ordeal is entitled to qualified immunity.”

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that shields a police officer from being sued for misconduct unless a prior court case has already deemed similar police actions to be illegal.

Judge Reeves found that prior cases shielded Officer McClendon from Mr. Jamison’s lawsuit. But he went on to explain why the doctrine needs to be reformed.

Tracing the history of qualified immunity and § 1983, Judge Reeves explained that this civil rights statute was passed to protect recently emancipated African Americans from violent white resistance to Black freedom and progress. The order cites EJI’s Reconstruction in America, a new report that documents more than 2,000 racial terror lynchings of Black people during the 12-year period following the Civil War.

As Judge Reeves noted, Black people in Mississippi were the targets of repeated massacres during Reconstruction, including in Vicksburg (a short drive from where Mr. Jamison was pulled over), where white mobs killed at least 50 Black citizens who had organized to protest the removal of their elected Black sheriff.

“Many of the perpetrators of racial terror were members of law enforcement,” the judge wrote. “It was a twisted law enforcement, though, as it prevented the laws of the era from being enforced.”

In response to widespread racial violence, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1871, codified as 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which as the order details, “uniquely targeted state officials who ‘deprived persons of their constitutional rights’ [and] the doors to the courthouse were opened to Black people.”

The U.S. Supreme Court later closed those doors by creating and expanding the doctrine of qualified immunity.

Judge Reeves lamented that he was bound by the doctrine to add Mr. Jamison’s case to the long list of cases in which police officers have violated people’s constitutional rights with impunity:

Our courts have shielded a police officer who shot a child while the officer was attempting to shoot the family dog; prison guards who forced a prisoner to sleep in cells “covered in feces” for days; police officers who stole over $225,000 worth of property … an officer who seriously burned a woman after detonating a “flashbang” device in the bedroom where she was sleeping … the doctrine now protects all officers, no matter how egregious their conduct, if the law they broke was not “clearly established.”

In granting the officer’s motion for qualified immunity, Judge Reeves emphasized that “[i]mmunity 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 order concludes by calling on the Supreme Court to get rid of the doctrine it created.

There is precedent for the Court to do so. “Just as the Supreme Court swept away the mistaken doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ so too should it eliminate the doctrine of qualified immunity,” Judge Reeves wrote. “Let us waste no time in righting this wrong.”