Home » Mississippi Judge Rules Qualified Immunity ‘Has No Basis in Law’

Mississippi Judge Rules Qualified Immunity ‘Has No Basis in Law’

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A judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi recently denied qualified immunity to a detective who had falsely accused a Mississippi man of capital murder and, in doing so, also agreed with the plaintiff that qualified immunity itself is unlawful. The decision could reshape the landscape of civil rights litigation. 

The ruling, handed down on May 20, could turn into a significant blow to the controversial legal doctrine that has often shielded law enforcement officers from lawsuits.

The case centers on Desmond Green, who was wrongfully accused and arrested based on the affidavit of a “lying, drug-impaired jailhouse informant” solicited by Jackson Police Detective Jacquelyn Thomas. The detective had guided the informant to identify Mr. Green from a photo lineup, according to the 62-page order issued by District Judge Carlton W. Reeves. 

United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi (Photo: mssp.uscourts.gov)

That led to Green spending nearly two years incarcerated in the Hinds County Detention Center, a facility known for its violence, rodent infestation, and moldy food, according to the order. At the time, Green lived in constant fear, often sleeping on the bare floor amidst “constant yelling, fighting, and threats,” Reeves wrote.

After the informant recanted the testimony, the charges against Green were dropped. Seeking justice for his wrongful prosecution and the harsh conditions of his confinement, Green filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the detective, the city of Jackson, and Hinds County, which operates the detention center.

“Green filed this lawsuit to seek justice for those two wrongs — his prosecution and conditions of confinement. He has sued the detective who obtained the warrant against him, her employer (the City of Jackson, Mississippi), and the operator of the Hinds County Detention Center (Hinds County, Mississippi),” Reeves wrote in the ruling.

“Green is now on the precipice of being wronged a third time. Not by a rogue officer or jailer, but by the law itself. Because the detective says the legal doctrine of qualified immunity requires the Court to dismiss Green’s claims against her,” the ruling continued.

Until this point, the decision was shaping up as a more-or-less standard denial of the government’s claim that it was entitled to qualified immunity in the case. But what Reeves wrote next struck at the heart of the legal doctrine itself.

“Most plaintiffs in this situation argue that the officer that wronged them isn’t entitled to qualified immunity. Green does that. Unlike others, though, he has taken the next step and argued that qualified immunity itself is unlawful. He joins lawyers, professors, judges, and even Supreme Court Justices who have called for the doctrine’s re‐evaluation, if not its abolition.

The Court agrees with these calls for change. Congress’s intent to protect citizens from government abuse cannot be overriden by judges who think they know better. As a doctrine that defies this basic principle, qualified immunity is an unconstitutional error. It is past time for the judiciary to correct this mistake.”

The doctrine of qualified immunity is a legal principle that protects government actors from being sued for their actions unless those actions have previously been ruled unconstitutional. The Supreme Court first carved out this protection in 1967 with its ruling in Pierson v. Ray, a case brought by a group of ministers who claimed their civil rights were violated by authorities in Jackson, Mississippi.

“Qualified immunity was invented by the Supreme Court in 1967,” Reeves wrote. “In plain English, it means persons wronged by government agents cannot sue those agents unless the Supreme Court previously found substantially the same acts to be unconstitutional.”

In the Pierson case, the ministers argued that their 1961 wrongful arrests and imprisonment for simply entering a bus station was a violation of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, a federal law enacted specifically to give Black citizens protection against police who would collude with white supremacists to violate the civil rights of African-Americans. The high court ruled in Pierson v. Ray that the Jackson police who arrested the clergymen for breach of peace were not liable because officers “reasonably believed” their actions were constitutional.

Reeves, describing the twisted irony of the Pierson ruling, wrote: “The Justices took a law meant to protect freed people exercising their federal rights in Southern states after the Civil War, then flipped its meaning. In creating qualified immunity, the high Court 100 years after the War ended. Southern trees bear strange fruit, indeed.”

The 60-year-old President Joe Biden appointee, in concluding that Thomas was not entitled to qualified immunity, as her actions violated clearly established constitutional law, also traced qualified immunity’s its evolution into what Justice Sonia Sotomayor has described as “an absolute shield” for police officers accused of excessive force, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

In a powerful conclusion, Reeves declared that qualified immunity “has no basis in law” and described it as an “extra-constitutional affront to other cherished values of our democracy.” The ruling — in the unlikely event it is upheld on appeal — could lead to more accountability of law enforcement officers, an issue backed by several civil rights advocates.

Clark Neily, senior vice president for legal studies at the Cato Institute, describing Reeves’ ruling for Newsweek, said, “Qualified immunity has become an extremely controversial legal issue because it creates this defense out of whole cloth. Courts are not really supposed to make policy; they’re supposed to rule on existing laws.”

Meanwhile, qualified immunity has sparked a wide range of reactions and debates, with supporters arguing that it protects public officials from constant lawsuits, according to legal experts. They believe that without this legal shield, those officials could be overwhelmed by costly lawsuits, which could deter people from joining these professions.

On the other hand, critics argue that qualified immunity has allowed law enforcement officers to violate citizens’ rights, especially those of disenfranchised individuals, without facing any repercussions. “One of the biggest problems with qualified immunity is you cannot find it written into any federal law or statute,” attorneys Melvin Hall and Jeff Bell wrote in an op-ed published in Newsweek. 

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