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United States District Court Judge for the Southern District of Mississippi, Carlton Reeves, dismissed civil rights claims against a police officer on grounds of qualified immunity for the (apparently unjustified) one hour fifty minute stop and search of plaintiff's car. The lengthy, detailed and forceful opinion provides a history lesson on the jurisprudential evolution of federal civil rights law and the doctrine of qualified immunity. In conclusion, Judge Reeves writes:
Instead of slamming shut the courthouse doors, our courts should use their power to ensure Section 1983 serves all of its citizens as the Reconstruction Congress intended. Those who violate the constitutional rights of our citizens must be held accountable. When that day comes we will be one step closer to that more perfect Union.
Again, I do not envy the task before the Supreme Court. Overturning qualified immunity will undoubtedly impact our society. Yet, the 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. Earlier this year, the Court explained something true about wearing the robe:
Every judge must learn to live with the fact he or she will make some mistakes; it comes with the territory. But it is something else entirely to perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right.Let us waste no time in righting this wrong.
I'd prefer that Judge Reves' point could be effectively made without resort to the racial element and expanded beyond police conduct. Qualified immunity has the potential to shield abusers regardless of the race of the abused. It also extends to public officials whose conduct isn't subject to the same pressures and immediacy as police officers. But, the issue deserves consideration and this is a time and a context in which the force of Judge Revees' argument won't lightly be ignored.
Posted: Aug. 5, 2020