Civil Rights

Qualified Immunity and Civil Rights: A Case Study

By December 9, 2020April 5th, 2021No Comments

Police misconduct and qualified immunity have been hot topics in 2020, and a recent August court case based in Mississippi called these subjects into question once again.

In 2013, Clarence Jamison, a Black man, was detained on the side of the road for almost two hours without cause by a white police officer in Mississippi.

Lucily, he got home safely, but he brought his grievance against the officer to court in a civil lawsuit known as Jamison v. McClendon, but the case was dismissed earlier this year due to qualified immunity. 

The federal district court judge who decided the case, however, hammered the problem of qualified immunity in his eloquent and powerful decision.

So what happened in this case, what is qualified immunity, and how does it affect everyday people and their civil rights?

What happened to Clarence Jamison?

Clarence Jamison is a Black man who was on his way home to South Carolina after a vacation in Arizona. He was driving a newly-purchased Mercedes-Benz convertible and was pulled over by a white police officer Nick McClendon in Southern Mississippi because the temporary tag on his car was allegedly not visible.

What ensued in the almost two hours that Officer McClendon detained Mr. Jamison is mostly agreed upon by the two parties, with some important differences:

  • Disagree: whether the temporary tag was or was not visible on the car when Officer McClendon pulled Mr. Jamison over.
  • Agree: Mr. Jamison provided Officer McClendon with his information and documents after being pulled over.
  • Disagree: Officer McClendon claims that Mr. Jamison consented to a search of his car, while Mr. Jamison claims that Officer McClendon demanded to search the car five times and lied that he had received a call that Mr. Jamison had cocaine in his vehicle.
  • Agree: Mr. Jamison watched Officer McClendon conduct a thorough search of Mr. Jamison’s car.
  • Agree: Officer McClendon asked whether his dog could be used on the vehicle as well, although Mr. Jamison initially refused before relenting again.
  • Agree: no illicit substances were found, and after almost two hours on the side of the road, Mr. Jamison was allowed to leave.
After this ordeal, Mr. Jamison filed a lawsuit against Officer McClendon, citing three claims:
  1. Alleging the officer violated his 4th Amendment rights by “falsely stopping him, searching his car, and detaining him.”
  2. Stating the officer violated his 14th Amendment rights by using “race [as] a motivating factor in the decision to stop him, search his car, and detain him.” 
  3. Alleging that the officer violated his 4th Amendment rights by “recklessly and deliberately causing damage to his car” through an “unlawful search” of the car “that amounted to unlawful seizure of his property.”

Mr. Jamison sought “actual, compensatory, and punitive damages” against Officer McClendon for physical damage to his car and psychological harm due to the emotional toll of the traffic stop.

In 2020, Federal District Court Judge Carlton W. Reeves granted Officer McClendon qualified immunity, effectively dismissing the case. 

What is qualified immunity?

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that shields police and other government officials from liability in civil rights lawsuits when the illegality of their actions is not “clearly established” in other cases.

When applied to police, two questions come into play:

  1. Did police use excessive force?
  2. If they did, should they have known that their conduct was illegal because it violated a “clearly established” prior court ruling that barred this conduct?

The problem is that the doctrine essentially holds public officials to a much lower standard, and courts are now dismissing police conduct left and right on the grounds that no prior court ruling has “nearly identical facts.”

It’s important to note that qualified immunity was a judiciously created doctrine, not a law created by a legislative body. 

In fact, qualified immunity was first invoked in a case in 1967 to shield white police officers from a lawsuit they faced when they enforced segregation. 

It was initially created to protect police from frivolous lawsuits, but many in the legal field believe that the doctrine has now gotten out of control.

As Federal Judge Reeves wrote in his decision, “Heads, the police win. Tails, you lose.”

What can we learn from case studies of qualified immunity?

Two of the biggest problems with qualified immunity include:

  1. Victims of police misconduct and brutality are unable to get justice they deserve, and these officers are not held responsible for their actions.
  2. Qualified immunity endangers constitutional rights, seeing as courts can dismiss cases merely based on a lack of similar cases.

As we move forward, there are several important developments to take into account:

In the case of Mr. Jamison, Federal Judge Reeves did dismiss the case on the basis of qualified immunity. 

However, he did so with the intent of making a point that qualified immunity is a huge problem in the U.S., and that he and other legal professionals are ready to reexamine this issue in favor of a fairer, more just process.

The Gilbert Law Firm is here to help you through any civil rights violation

At Gilbert Law Firm, we are dedicated to helping you understand what actions we can take on your behalf if your rights have been violated.

We will work with you every step of the way to make sure that you understand the choices you are making and feel empowered to make them. Contact us today to tell us about your case and get started.

Lawyers who listen.