Rarely a day goes by that Americans don’t hear news of police wrongfully arresting someone. In many ways, Americans have grown numb to the fact that police and other government officials routinely violate our Fourth Amendment rights. But today, an Arkansas family working with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit public interest law firm, has asked the United States Supreme Court to reaffirm one of this country’s most important founding principles: that when government officials violate our constitutional rights, citizens can hold them accountable in court.
The case started in January 2018, when Haden and Weston Young—two boys, aged 12 and 14—were heading home from their grandparents’ house after a family dinner. As they approached their home, a police car came around the corner with its lights on. The car stopped and the officer emerged with his gun drawn. He had no reason to believe that two boys who were walking calmly toward his car posed any threat. And yet, within moments, the officer—who was looking for two grown men who’d fled from police earlier—shouted “get on the ground,” handcuffed the boys, and held them at gunpoint.
The boys’ mom, Casondra “Cassi” Pollreis, watched the scene unfold from her front yard. She rushed to the scene and pleaded with the officer, “They are my boys!” The officer ignored her pleas, pointed his Taser at her and shouted to get back inside. For six terrifying minutes the boys lay face down on a sidewalk while the officer paced around them with his gun pointed at their backs. Eventually the officer’s sergeant arrived, assessed the scene, immediately realized a mistake had been made and let the boys go. The officer got back in his car, closed the door, and said to himself “duuummb.” He knew that what he did was wrong.
The incident didn’t end that night. Cassi and the boys talked with a lawyer and decided to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the officer for making a wrongful arrest. The district court agreed and found that the officer had violated the boys’ Fourth Amendment rights, writing that “handcuffing two boys laying facedown on the ground, at gunpoint,” was “more intrusive than necessary.” But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, found that the boys had never been “arrested” at all. Instead, it said that what constitutes an arrest “can be hazy,” and that the officer’s conduct did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Now, with the help of IJ, Cassi and her boys have asked the United States Supreme Court to take up their case. Today they filed a Petition for Certiorari asking the Court to rein in the ever-expanding doctrine of “stop and frisk” and make clear that the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from being arrested without probable cause.
“Through silence and inaction, the Supreme Court has allowed the doctrine of ‘stop and frisk’ to morph into ‘stop, drop, handcuff, and hold at gunpoint,’” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara. “As the number of involuntary encounters between citizens and government officials has soared in recent decades, the rules protecting citizens from abuse in those encounters have withered. The Fourth Amendment is not ‘hazy’ when it comes to our basic right to go about our business without being assaulted by government agents who’ve lost their cool.”
At issue in the case is what is called a “Terry stop,” which is named after a 1968 Supreme Court case called Terry v. Ohio. In Terry, the Supreme Court held that police officers had a “narrow authority” to briefly detain someone without probable cause and pat them down to ensure they aren’t carrying any weapons—but that’s all. Since then, many federal courts—like the Eighth Circuit in this case—have broadened Terry’s authority to include highly intrusive, sometimes violent law enforcement conduct as constitutionally permissible. At the same time, other courts have reined in the practice.
“The fact that a police officer has gotten away with handcuffing two clearly innocent children and holding them at gunpoint makes it high time for the Supreme Court to revisit Terry,” said IJ Attorney Marie Miller. “The Supreme Court must make clear that police cannot flagrantly violate someone’s Fourth Amendment rights without being held accountable. If the courts refuse to enforce the Fourth Amendment, we cannot expect the rest of the government to follow it.”
“I’ll never forget the feeling of watching my boys being held at gunpoint,” said Cassi. “I was terrified for them. No mother should have to witness that. We’re asking the Supreme Court to fix this so that no one has to go through what my boys and I went through.”
Today’s petition is part of the Institute for Justice’s mission to fight on behalf of those individuals who are denied their rights and to hold government officials accountable for their unconstitutional actions. IJ stands up for ordinary American’s Fourth Amendment rights to be secure in their both their property and persons. Most recently, IJ filed a lawsuit in Ohio to stop “whenever, wherever” business inspections. IJ has also filed lawsuits across the country standing up for tenants’ right to be free from warrantless home inspections.