Mississippi was the second state to secede from the Union and join a treasonous Civil War against the United States. It was a vain effort by white southerners, mostly wealthy plantation owners, to keep black people enslaved. When the “proud war” was lost, Mississippi and South Carolina began passing Black Code laws in 1865 just months after the war was over to continue a new brand of enslavement of black people. Armed with the protection of these laws (sort of like absolute immunity), white people—many of whom with law enforcement connections–lynched more black people in Mississippi (539) than in any state in the country between 1882 and 1968.
It has been said that racism is “built into the very bones” of Mississippi. It is undoubtedly in the “very bones” in law enforcement in Mississippi (here and here). To say that U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves, the second African-American federal judge in Mississippi, sitting in the Southern District of that state, is fed up with policing and racism in this country, and particularly in Mississippi, would be a classic understatement.
In 72-page August 4, 2020 decision, Judge Reeves unleashed both his anger and disdain at white police officers who repeatedly, time and time again, with little or no accountability, impose their racist views and behavior on black people simply because they have the power to do so. The case before Judge Reeves involved Clarence Jamison, an African-American resident from Neeses, South Carolina.
In July 2013, Jamison bought a 2001 Mercedes-Benz convertible from a car dealership in Pennsylvania. He drove the vehicle to Las Vegas and Phoenix where he vacationed. On July 29, Mr. Jamison was driving home on Interstate 20 through Mississippi when he was stopped by a white police officer named Nick McClendon in Pelahatchie. The officer said he initiated a traffic stop because the temporary license tag on Jamison’s Mercedes was folded in such a manner that it prevented the officer from seeing it. There was no other basis for the stop.
Judge Reeves effectively concluded that Officer McClendon actually initiated the traffic stop because Jamison was a black man driving a Mercedes-Benz—and apparently in Mississippi that is “reasonable suspicion” to believe criminal activity must be afoot.
The color of his skin and the model of the vehicle he was driving subjected Clarence Jamison to a one hour and 50-minute stop that included a criminal background check, a search of his car by McClendon, a canine search of his vehicle, and verbal accusations of criminal wrongdoing. As part of this 2 hour “investigative detention,” Mr. Jamison was forced to stand on the side of a busy interstate, where he was eventually forced to urinate. As a final insult, he incurred $4,000 in damage to his car. All this during a police search which had no legitimate basis.
Respect and Dignity of Black Lives
Judge Reeves called attention to a June 9, 2020 decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in which that court stated: “Although we recognize that our police officers are often asked to make split second decisions, we expect them to do so with respect for the dignity and worth of black lives.”
Judge Reeves noted:
“This Court agrees. Tragically, thousands have died at the hands of law enforcement over the years, and the death toll continues to rise. Countless more have suffered from other forms of abuse and misconduct by the police. Qualified immunity has served as a shield for these officers, protecting them from accountability.”
Qualified Immunity Allows Law Enforcement to Act with Impunity
Judge Reeves also noted that, as a court of law, he is required to follow the law laid down by the U.S. Supreme Court, which then forced him to grant qualified immunity to Officer McClendon for his racist misconduct in Jamison’s detention. However, he made it clear that he was not pleased with the state of the law that allows the police to act with impunity with the lives of the people they encounter, particularly African-Americans. Judge Reeves has this to say about the state of the law:
“Over the decades, judges have invented a legal doctrine to protect law enforcement officers from having to face any consequences for wrongdoing. The doctrine is called ‘qualified immunity.’ In real life it operates as absolute immunity.”
Not finished, Judge Reeves then pointed to the reality faced by many African-Americans when they encounter the police in this country: “Thankfully, Jamison left the stop with his life. Too many others have not.”
The blistering angry federal judge then listed other innocent acts that have cost African-Americans their lives at the hands of law enforcement:
- Clarence Jamison was not jaywalking;
- He wasn’t outside playing with a toy gun;
- He didn’t look like a “suspicious person;”
- He wasn’t suspected of “selling loose, untaxed cigarettes;”
- He wasn’t suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill;
- He didn’t look like anyone suspected of a crime;”
- He wasn’t mentally ill and in need of help;
- He wasn’t assisting an autistic patient who had wandered away from a group home;
- He wasn’t walking home from an after-school job;
- He wasn’t walking back from a restaurant;
- He wasn’t hanging out on a college campus;
- He wasn’t standing outside his apartment;
- He wasn’t inside his apartment eating ice cream;
- He wasn’t sleeping in his bed;
- He wasn’t sleeping in his car;
- He didn’t make any “improper lane change;”
- He didn’t have a broken tail light;
- He wasn’t driving over the speed limit; and
- He wasn’t driving under the speed limit.
Against that horrific backdrop, Judge Reeves said, “This has to stop!”
But “this” cannot stop until the legal fiction of qualified immunity for rogue, irresponsible, and corrupt cops is eliminated, and lengthy prison sentences are handed out to racist police officers who violate the law while acting in the scope of their employment. Until law enforcement is forced to abide by the same rules as the rest of society, with real legal consequences following their bad acts, there will be little lasting motivation to reform.