Warning trigger: sexual assault
Valentine’s Day 2016 was not about celebrating love and romance. Instead, it was the day MP Thomas Carl Pierson of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia seriously violated my constitutional rights.
February 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 continue working anyway. way – were protected from civil liability by the obscure legal doctrine of qualified immunity.
My attacker first stopped me for speeding and gave me a warning after chatting for a few minutes.
He then asked me to move away further on a small road. When I didn’t, he followed me for several miles and shot me again using his blue lights.
Pierson then turned off his dash cam and asked me to drive on a lonely road. I was terrified and did as he said.
When I pulled over, he pulled me out of the car and sexually and physically assaulted me. He then warned me not to tell anyone and left.
Pierson convicted of sexual assault
Unlike most sexual assault victims who fear they will not be believed or have other reasons not to speak up, I immediately reported the incident. In August 2017, Pierson was convicted of sexually assaulting a person in custody and six other charges related to traffic stops with myself and two other women. Two months later, he was convicted by a judge of the Superior Court of Georgia.
During the lengthy court process, I discovered that six months before his assault on me on August 31, 2015, Pierson was involved in an incident of excessive force that killed Nicholas Dyksma. Pierson’s boss, Sheriff Robert Michael Jolley, was aware of 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 was later to rule on my case heard the case on behalf of Nicholas Dyksma’s family. Judge Clay Land ruled that Pierson was not protected by qualified immunity in the Dyksma case, but the sheriff and his office were. This case was settled on appeal.
Kimberly Beck:My son was killed by a ranger. Qualified immunity means I may never see justice.
I sued Pierson, Harris County and Sheriff Jolley for violating my Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and civil rights violations based on Jolley’s policies and customs of tolerating abusive cops in force.
I have suffered from a litany of physical and mental health issues since the brutal assault by a police officer. But because of the qualified immunity laws, I find myself without any substantial legal recourse and Jolley remains in office.
Qualified immunity left me no recourse
The jurisprudential doctrine of qualified immunity was created during the civil rights era of the 1960s and was then extended in the 1980s. Its intentions seem noble at first glance – the idea was to protect the police and other officials. government against prosecution as long as their conduct did not violate “clearly established law or constitutional rights of which a reasonable officer would have been aware.”
In practice, however, the second part of the doctrine, which asks whether a violated constitutional right was “clearly established”, has ended up meaning that until there is a factually identical case in the same jurisdiction, abusive and negligent police officers, their superiors and other officials cannot be held civilly responsible for violations of the Constitution.
Qualified immunity:My brother wanted to go to the bathroom. The police killed him instead.
Until the Supreme Court of the United States intervenes, the judges seem unable to decide on 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 were unaware that an abusive cop could engage in another type of violence – that of sexual assault. Judge ruled 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 responsible in my case, because his conduct was found to be intentional, the sheriff’s office claims he is not covered by the Harris County insurance policy. Since he is imprisoned and has no income, he is essentially trial-proof.
While I find it heartwarming to know that my attacker is behind bars, seeing Jolley and the Harris County Sheriff’s Department evade civil liability is a miscarriage of justice that I have to face every day for the rest of my life.
That is why I am arguing for reform of the qualified immunity laws. In March, the United States House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. This would reduce the standard of criminal intent to “willfully” and insert “knowingly or recklessly” to convict a law enforcement officer of misconduct in a federal prosecution.
It would also limit qualified immunity as a defense against 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 getting reimbursed, and protects police departments from their legal obligations.
Harris County and Sheriff Jolley gave Thomas Pierson access to his badge and sent him “to work.” They should be held accountable.
Lynette Christmas, mother of three and grandmother of five, is a sexual assault survivor and local justice activist.
This column is one 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.