The Doctrine of Qualified Immunity Must Go

By: Gregg Zeff
On: August 7, 2020

supreme court building

The doctrine of qualified immunity, which often absolves law enforcement officials who commit misconduct, was articulated by the Supreme Court in 1982. Although the doctrine has since been widely applied to dismiss civil rights suits, some judges are starting to push back.

In an opinion piece published by the Washington Post, Editor Ruth Marcus notes that Judge Carlton Reeves, a federal judge in Mississippi, recently issued an opinion arguing that the Supreme Court must do away with qualified immunity in its present form. The case involved a Black man, Clarence Jamison, who was pulled over allegedly because the temporary tag on his new car was folded over. After Jamison was pulled over, he was, according to Judge Reeves’s opinion, “subjected to one hundred and ten minutes of an armed police officer badgering him, pressuring him, lying to him and then searching his car top to bottom for drugs.” The opinion goes on to state that “[n]othing was found. Jamison isn’t a drug courier. He’s a welder.”

Judge Reeves concluded that the police officer who had searched Jamison violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Despite this, Judge Reeves was forced to apply the doctrine of qualified immunity to dismiss Jamison’s claims. In doing so, Judge Reeves wrote that “[t]he 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.”

In a powerful and heart-wrenching rebuke of qualified immunity, Judge Reeves began his opinion with footnote references to nineteen other Black people and the fates they suffered at the hands of police officers. Specifically, according to the article, the opinion begins:

“Clarence Jamison wasn’t jaywalking.” Footnote: “That was Michael Brown,” shot by police in Ferguson, Mo. “He wasn’t outside playing with a toy gun.” Footnote: “That was 12-year-old Tamir Rice,” shot in a park by a Cleveland police officer. “He wasn’t suspected of ‘selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.’ ” Footnote: “That was Eric Garner,” the Staten Island man who died after an officer put him in a chokehold.

We hope that Judge Reeves’s opinion and others like it will be turning points that compel the Supreme Court to revisit the doctrine of qualified immunity.

Read the Washington Post opinion piece, “The Supreme Court invented qualified immunity. Now, a judge’s blistering opinion shows why it must go,” here.

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