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Atlanta—Declaring that “abuse cannot be condoned,” the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has cleared the way for two black motorists to sue a white police officer who, they say, strip-searched them and poked their buttocks with a metal baton while peppering them with racial epithets and threats about prison rape. All 12 members of the 11th Circuit in Atlanta held that Denis Stephens, a former police officer for the city of Zebulon, Ga., was not entitled to the legal protection from suits frequently given to law enforcement officers accused of civil rights violations. In a decision written by Chief Judge J.L. Edmondson, the 11th Circuit on May 9 reiterated its position that officers get qualified immunity when their actions, while illegal, were not “so clearly established that every reasonable officer would have known” they were illegal. But Stephens’ actions in his stop of former Georgia Southern University students Peter Evans and Detree Jordan went “well beyond the ‘hazy border’ that sometimes separates lawful conduct from unlawful conduct,” wrote Edmondson. The case dealt with claims by Evans and Jordan that on a January evening in 1999 they took a wrong turn on their drive from Atlanta to Statesboro, Ga. Cutting across middle Georgia on secondary roads, the pair was stopped by Stephens for speeding in Zebulon. After searching their car, Stephens arrested Evans for refusing to take a breath alcohol test. Stephens took the pair to the Pike County jail, brought them into a back room and ordered them to remove their clothes, ostensibly to look for drugs. As he probed their buttocks with what has been described as a batonlike, “cold, black object,” Stephens said, “Y’all are going to get [raped] . . . .I am going to send y’all up the road for a long time, boy,” according to Jordan’s testimony. “Somebody is going to be [raping] you for the next 20 years,” Stephens said, according to Evans’ testimony. The two were released the next day, and Evans later pleaded guilty to reckless driving. “No objectively reasonable policeman,” Edmondson wrote, “could have believed that the degrading and forceful manner of this strip-search (especially in the light of the complete lack of circumstances that might have called for immediate action to conduct a search without the time for cool and calm thought about how to proceed) was ‘reasonable’ in the constitutional sense.” Clark E. Gulley, one of Evans’ and Jordan’s lawyers, said his clients were relieved by the decisions, which reversed a three-judge panel’s 2003 holding. “They’re looking forward to their day in court,” added Gulley, who is handling the case with Dovre C. Jensen Jr. The plaintiffs’ suit claims that Stephens violated their Fourth Amendment rights. Thomas Mitchell, who represents Stephens, said he was disappointed by the ruling and is considering an appeal.

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