A sheriff in Georgia is protected by qualified immunity after letting an abusive deputy stay on the streets. The deputy later sexually assaulted me.
The doctrine of qualified immunity has been used to protect police from civil lawsuits and trials. Here's why it was put in place.
Valentine’s Day 2016 wasn’t spent celebrating love and romance. Instead, it was the day deputy Thomas Carl Pierson, of Georgia's Harris County Sheriff’s Office, grossly violated my constitutional rights.
Feb. 14, 2016, was the day Pierson sexually assaulted me.
I later found out that Pierson's conduct shouldn't have been a surprise, and that the Sheriff's Office and the sheriff himself – who knew Pierson was dangerous and decided to let him keep working anyway – were shielded from civil liability by the obscure legal doctrine of qualified immunity.
My aggressor initially pulled me over for speeding and gave me a warning after being chatty for a few minutes.
He then asked me to pull off farther down a small road. When I didn’t, he followed me for several miles and pulled me over again using his blue lights.
Pierson then turned off his dash cam and asked me to drive down a secluded road. I was terrified and did as he said.
When I stopped, he pulled me from the car and sexually and physically abused me. He then warned me not to tell anyone and drove away.
Pierson convicted of sexual assault
Unlike most sexual assault victims who fear not being believed or have other reasons for not speaking up, I immediately reported the incident. In August 2017, Pierson was found guilty of sexual assault on a person in custody and six other charges related to traffic stops with myself and two other women. Two months later, he was sentenced by a Georgia Superior Court judge.
In the course of the lengthy legal process, I found out that six months before his assault on me, on Aug. 31, 2015, Pierson was involved in an excessive force incident that killed Nicholas Dyksma. Pierson's boss, Sheriff Robert Michael Jolley, knew about the officer's involvement in Dyksma's death.
Jolley let Pierson continue to patrol the streets of Harris County, anyway.
In July 2018, the same 11th Circuit Court judge who would later rule on my case, heard the case on behalf of Nicholas Dyksma's family. Judge Clay Land ruled that Pierson wasn't protected under qualified immunity in the Dyksma case, but that the sheriff and his office were. That case was settled on appeal.
Kimberly Beck: My son was killed by a park ranger. Qualified immunity means I may never see justice.
I sued Pierson, Harris County and Sheriff Jolley for violations of my Fourth and 14th Amendment rights and civil rights violations based on Jolley's policies and customs of tolerating abusive cops on the force.
I have suffered from a litany of physical and mental health issues since the brutal assault by a police officer. But because of qualified immunity laws, I am left without any substantive legal recourse, and Jolley remains in office.
Qualified immunity left me with no recourse
The judge-made doctrine of qualified immunity was created during the 1960s civil rights era and was later expanded in the 1980s. Its intentions appear noble at first – the idea was to provide police officers and other government officials with protection from lawsuits so long as their conduct didn't violate "clearly established law or constitutional rights of which a reasonable officer would have known."
In practice, however, the second part of the doctrine, which asks whether a constitutional right that was violated was "clearly established," has come to mean that as long as there is not a factually identical case in the same jurisdiction, police officers, their superiors, and other abusive and negligent government workers cannot be held civilly liable for violations of the Constitution.
Qualified Immunity: My brother wanted to go to the bathroom. Police killed him instead.
Until the U.S. Supreme Court steps in, judges can't seem to make up their minds about the doctrine, and we end up with absurd case law as a result.
Judge Clay Land ruled that Jolley and his office were protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity in my case because they weren't on notice that an abusive cop might engage in a different kind of violence – that of sexual assault. The judge decided that Jolley was off the hook because the facts weren't the same in the two cases
The injustice does not end there. Even though Pierson was held criminally liable in my case, because his conduct was found to be intentional, the Sheriff's Office claims he is not covered under Harris County's insurance policy. Since he is jailed and doesn't have an income, he is essentially judgment proof.
While I find comfort in knowing that my aggressor is behind bars, seeing Jolley and the Harris County Sheriff's Department escape civil liability is a miscarriage of justice that I have to deal with every single day for the rest of my life.
That is why I advocate for reform of qualified immunity laws. In March, the U.S. House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. It would lower the criminal intent standard from “willfully” and inserting “knowingly or recklessly” to convict a law enforcement officer for misconduct in a federal prosecution.
It also would limit qualified immunity as a defense to liability in a civil action against a police officer and grant subpoena power to the Department of Justice
Qualified immunity keeps bad cops on the streets, prevents victims from recovering for damages and shields police departments from their legal obligations.
Harris County and Sheriff Jolley gave Thomas Pierson access to his badge and sent him out to “work.” They should be held accountable.
Lynette Christmas, a mother of three and grandmother of five, is a sexual assault survivor and local advocate for justice.
This column is part of a series by the USA TODAY Opinion team examining the issue of qualified immunity. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together. Stand Together does not provide editorial input.
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