Sunday, September 6, 2020
In Jamison v. McLendon, District Judge Carlton Reeves drafted a powerfully written and compelling opinion that highlighted a law enforcement officer’s egregious – and unconstitutional – treatment of a suspect in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Then, Judge Reeves let the officer off the hook.
Specifically, Judge Reeves held that the qualified immunity doctrine shielded the officer from liability. That conclusion was wrong.
By way of background, in Jamison, a law enforcement officer stopped the plaintiff (Jamison) for an alleged license plate tag violation. The officer believed that Jamison had illegal items in his car, although this belief was not based on any facts whatsoever. Nevertheless, and based on a mere hunch, the officer repeatedly pressured Jamison for almost two hours to consent to a search of his car, including pleading with Jamison five times before he relented and permitted the search. To make matters worse, before obtaining consent, the officer allegedly “placed his hand into the car … patted the inside of the passenger door,” and “moved his arm further into the car … while patting it with his hand.”
Jamison sued the officer and alleged, among other things, that the officer’s conduct violated the Fourth Amendment. Judge Reeves ruled, albeit reluctantly, that the qualified immunity doctrine shielded the officer from liability. Specifically, and despite highlighting the officer’s egregious conduct, which certainly violated the Fourth Amendment, Judge Reeves held that the officer’s conduct did not violate “clearly established law” and thus applied the qualified immunity doctrine. In so doing, Judge Reeves vociferously criticized the qualified immunity doctrine (and relevant precedent), arguing that it had become tantamount to absolute immunity. Ironically, Judge Reeves’s decision afforded the qualified immunity doctrine precisely the absolutism he eschewed – and for no good reason.
To be clear, Judge Reeves is an outstanding writer and his opinion is a textbook example of how to draft a persuasive legal narrative. Law students – and lawyers – would benefit from reading Judge Reeves’s opinion.
The praise afforded to Judge Reeves’s opinion, however, should stop there. Specifically, the qualified immunity doctrine did not require Judge Reeves to reach this most unjust result because the officer’s conduct unquestionably violated Jamison’s Fourth Amendment rights. As Professor Orin Kerr explained, “the Fourth Amendment law of searching a car is a clearly established bright-line rule,” and “[b]ecause it's a bright-line rule, the violation becomes obvious even if there is no factually identical or closely similar case.” Professor Kerr further stated as follows:
My sense … is that McClendon did violate clearly established law. Sticking his arm inside the car and patting down the inside of the door was obviously a search. It was governed by the rule, long recognized in the Fifth Circuit as clearly-established law, that the officer needed some justification for that search—probable cause, or a warrant, or a safety concern, or a special needs concern. But there's no plausible argument I am aware of that any of those justifications could apply. To use the Fifth Circuit's language in Mack, this was ‘a random search of a vehicle where none of the above justifications apply.’
For these reasons, if Judge Reeves felt so appalled at the officer’s behavior – as any reasonable person would be – he should have held that the qualified immunity doctrine did not apply.
More broadly, Judge Reeves’s criticism of the qualified immunity doctrine is questionable. The doctrine is not necessarily the problem; rather, the courts’ interpretation of that doctrine, which has, as a practical matter, created near-absolute immunity for law enforcement officers, is where the problem lies. But in Jamison, the relevant precedent did not compel the result Judge Reeves reached because, as Professor Kerr stated, the officer’s conduct “did violate clearly established law.” Indeed, the opinion is quite ironic. On one hand, Judge Reeves criticized the qualified immunity doctrine for, among other things, being tantamount to absolute immunity. On the other hand, Judge Reeves applied the doctrine in a manner that arguably afforded the very absolute immunity he eschewed, despite conduct by a law enforcement officer that unquestionably violated the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights – and clearly established law. The idea that Judge Reeves’s hands were tied, and that he was forced to reach a conclusion that so profoundly contravened his beliefs, is unpersuasive. The decision was the legal equivalent of a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, if the conduct Judge Reeves criticized so vociferously was not, in his view, sufficient to invoke the qualified immunity doctrine, what is?
Thus, although Judge Reeves’s opinion should be praised as an example of outstanding legal writing, it should be criticized for the reasoning upon which it was predicated. As a practical matter, Judge Reeves’s decision deprived an individual, who suffered an egregious violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, of a well-deserved legal remedy. As Professor Kerr stated, “[i]t seems to me that Judge Reeves likely was wrong, and that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity.”
Ultimately, as the saying goes, “be the change you want to see in the world.” Judge Reeves stated in his opinion, “[l]et us waste no time in righting this wrong.” But then Judge Reeves did the very thing he cautioned against by refusing to right a constitutional wrong.
Judge Reeves – and courts across the country – should interpret the doctrine to mean what it says – immunity is qualified, not absolute.
 Jamison v. McLendon, 2020 WL 4497723 (S.D. Miss. Aug. 4, 2020) (the opinion is also available at: http://cdn.cnn.com/cnn/2020/images/08/04/jamison-v-mcclendon.pdf)
 See Orin Kerr, Did Judge Reeves Reach the Correct Result in Jamison v. McClendon? (Aug. 6, 2020), available at: https://reason.com/2020/08/06/did-judge-reeves-reach-the-correct-result-in-jamison-v-mcclendon/?amp
 See id.
 See id.
 Id. (internal citation omitted) (emphasis in original).
 Id. (emphasis in original).
 Jamison v. McLendon, 2020 WL 4497723, at *29.