IJ Asks Eighth Circuit to Vindicate Rights of Mom Whose Innocent Kids Were Held at Gunpoint by Police
Late one evening in January 2018, Cassi Pollreis was enjoying dinner and a football game with her family at her parents’ house in Springdale, Arkansas. As the game approached halftime, everyone agreed to leave to finish the game at home. Cassi, her husband, and their two daughters drove. Cassi’s two sons, aged 12 and 14, walked.
Soon after she got home, Cassi heard a commotion down the street. She looked out the window and saw a police officer pointing a gun at her two boys. Trying to de-escalate the situation, she approached the officer, asking to have a word. Instead of acknowledging her presence, the officer ordered the boys onto the ground, with his weapon still trained at them. Cassi then stepped closer and told the officer that the boys were her sons, that they were 12 and 14, and that she was just with them at their grandparents’ house. Instead of listening to her, the officer drew a taser on Cassi and ordered her to get back into the house. With his gun still pointed at her boys, Cassi had no choice but to comply. As she left them, she managed to say only a few words: “You’ll be all right … I promise.”
The nightmarish encounter—all of which was captured on video—began when a police officer in pursuit of two fleeing adults decided that these young boys, walking casually down the street, fit the bill. The officer yelled, “What’s your name?” The older boy answered, “Haden Young.” Though the voice unmistakably belonged to a child, and though Cassi came out soon afterward to explain that these were indeed her innocent children, the officer continued to hold the boys at gunpoint and even handcuffed them, until his sergeant, eight minutes into the encounter, ordered the officer to let them go. As generally happens in these situations, the officer faced no consequences.
Outraged at what could have easily become a fatal encounter with police, Cassi and the boys sued for violations of their Fourth Amendment rights. The district court rejected the officer’s argument that he was entitled to qualified immunity on the boys’ claims, writing that “handcuffing two boys laying facedown on the ground, at gunpoint,” was “more intrusive than necessary.” But the district court agreed that qualified immunity shielded the officer from Cassi’s claim, because no caselaw in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals specifically stated that threatening a complying bystander with a taser was unconstitutional. In other words, it was not enough for Cassi to point to binding caselaw on an unconstitutional threat to use a weapon (which she did). Instead, Cassi had to find a case that specifically stated that a threatened use of a taser was unconstitutional.
The officer immediately appealed the determination about the boys. And the 8th Circuit agreed with him, reversing the denial of qualified immunity. That’s when the Institute for Justice got involved and filed a petition for certiorari in the United States Supreme Court, challenging this reversal. Unfortunately, on January 24, 2021, the Supreme Court denied that petition, letting the decision about the boys stand.
But the fight is not over. Cassi now gets to appeal her claim that the officer violated her Fourth Amendment rights when he pointed a dangerous weapon at her simply because she was trying to explain to the officer that the boys he had under the gun were Cassi’s two sons walking home from dinner. The officer did it even though Cassi was not a suspect in any crime and nothing that she did put him in any danger.
The district court’s reasoning that qualified immunity shields the officer because of the type of weapon the officer threatened to use is wrong. Constitutional protections do not turn on weapon-by-weapon distinctions. In the 8th Circuit, there are cases that specifically say that threatening to use a weapon (be it a gun or a flashlight) on someone who does not present a threat violates the Fourth Amendment. That should be enough to put a reasonable officer on notice, which is the stated purpose of qualified immunity.
Learn more about IJ’s work on Project on Immunity and Accountability.
A victory for Cassi in the 8th Circuit can’t undo the trauma she and the boys suffered on that January night. But at least it can protect their constitutional rights—and those of others.
Anya Bidwell is an IJ attorney and the Elfie Gallun Fellow in Freedom and the Constitution.
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