COVINGTON – The ACLU of Louisiana has again defeated qualified immunity, an enormous legal challenge, in a lawsuit against the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office (STPSO) for racially profiling and harassing an unarmed Black man. Federal Judge Lance M. Africk denied a Motion for Summary Judgement brought by St. Tammany Deputy Alexander Thomas in the civil rights lawsuit filed by the ACLU and Linklaters LLP on behalf of Bruce Washington and Gregory Lane.
“For decades, qualified immunity – which functions as near absolute immunity – has shielded police officers and other government employees from being held responsible for all sorts of malfeasance,” said Nora Ahmed, ACLU of Louisiana legal director. “As we approach the third anniversary of the killing of George Floyd and the launch of our Justice Lab program, ending this obscure, judge-made legal doctrine with no basis in statutory law is critical. We achieved a major victory for our client in defeating qualified immunity here, but the battle is far from over. Rather than do the right thing and come to the table in earnest, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office is seeking to overturn this ruling at the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.”
This ruling comes on the heels of another successful Justice Lab challenge to the qualified immunity doctrine brought against the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office in Perkins v. Hart et. al. In denying the bulk of the officers’ motion for summary judgment, the District Court there, the Honorable Wendy B. Vitter, held that the deputies were not entitled to qualified immunity on the excessive force and First Amendment claims brought by Ms. Teliah Perkins, given the significant evidence showing violations of multiple constitutional rights. On March 5, 2020, officers violently seized Ms. Perkins, a Black woman, and mother, forcing her face into the pavement and digging their knees into her back and legs. Ms. Perkins’ son, a minor, helplessly recorded the brutal arrest. Unfortunately, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office also refuses to accept responsibility for its misconduct in this case, choosing instead to ask the Fifth Circuit to overturn that ruling as well.
Mr. Washington’s lawsuit, like Ms. Perkins’, similarly arises out of a racially motivated traffic stop that resulted in his unlawful search and harassment, indicative of the well-documented and pervasive culture of racial prejudice and discrimination within the St. Tammany Police Department against Black community members.
On the night of March 13, 2021, St. Tammany Sheriff deputies followed, stopped, and interrogated Mr. Washington and Mr. Lane, both Black men, and subjected both men to pat-down searches. After Mr. Washington said he knew his rights under the law, Deputy Alexander Thomas threatened that Mr. Washington was going to make the traffic stop “go a different way than it has to be.” After 20 minutes of harassment, a deputy issued an unsubstantiated traffic citation to Mr. Washington, which was later dropped by a prosecutor. Mr. Washington and Mr. Lane attempted to file a misconduct complaint against the deputies, only to be repeatedly turned away. In response to Mr. Washington’s concerns, one STPSO employee grumbled, “that’s what’s wrong with y’all people, you want to complain every time something doesn’t go your way,” in an apparent reference to Black Americans, and then stated that he would never write up one of his deputies.
In denying STPSO’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court concluded that Deputy Thomas was not entitled to qualified immunity on the issue of the unlawful search given the significant issues surrounding (1) whether Mr. Washington had consented to Deputy Thomas’s search, (2) whether any consent could really be valid immediately following the deputy’s threat of arrest or force, and (3) whether the deputy had reasonable suspicion to search Mr. Washington in the first place. In particular, the Court found that Deputy Thomas was not entitled to qualified immunity because the facts could lead a jury to find that it was not “objectively reasonable for Thomas to believe that he had Washington’s consent for the frisk,” and therefore that he had violated Mr. Washington’s constitutional rights.
“Although we still have a long way to go toward addressing unconstitutional stop-and-searches by law enforcement of Black people in Louisiana, we are satisfied that the Court’s summary judgment decision, in this case, is a step in the right direction,” said Linklaters Senior Associate Elizabeth Raulston. “In denying qualified immunity to Deputy Thomas, the Court has confirmed that clearly established Fourth Amendment law prohibits law enforcement from searching people, like Mr. Washington, where officers have neither reasonable suspicion nor the person’s consent.”
The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office’s culture of racism against the Black community is well documented. In 2010, then-Sheriff Rodney “Jack” Strain ranted to a local news reporter on camera, “If you’re gonna walk the streets of St. Tammany Parish with dreadlocks and chee wee hairstyles, then you can expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff’s deputy.” Years later, several high-ranking detectives were exposed for exchanging racist and offensive emails, including referring to Black individuals as “monkey[s]” and “animals.” This behavior permeates from the top-down in state-wide policing and has resulted in shockingly disparate treatment of Black individuals by law enforcement such that in Louisiana, Black people constitute 33% of state residents, but 67% of people in prison and 52% of people in jail.
Washington et al. v. Smith et al. was the 34th lawsuit filed as part of the ACLU of Louisiana’s Justice Lab campaign. The program has filed 50 cases across Louisiana against law enforcement agencies since first launching in 2020. For more information, visit aclujusticelab.org.