J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · December 7, 2023

Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) filed a petition for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court on behalf of Casondra “Cassi” Pollreis, an Arkansas mother whose case against a police officer—for unlawfully threatening her with a Taser—was dismissed after judges used inconclusive dashcam video to deny her a trial. 

The petition raises important questions concerning the Fourth Amendment’s protections against excessive force and the separate roles judges and juries play in deciding cases.

Cassi’s case began on a cold winter’s night in 2018. Her two young boys were walking home from their grandparents’ house when a police car stopped in front of them and an officer emerged with his gun drawn. Within moments, the officer started shouting “get on the ground” and proceeded to handcuff the boys and hold them at gunpoint.

Cassi noticed the commotion, and—as any mother would—attempted to defuse the situation. With her boys lying face down on the ground and the officer’s gun drawn on their backs, Cassi calmly attempted to reason with the officer. “They are my boys . . . Are you serious? They are 12 and 14 years-old,” she said.

He replied: “And I’m looking for two kids about this age right now.” But he wasn’t; he was looking for three grown men and a woman who’d fled from police earlier in the evening. The boys and Cassi were completely innocent, but that didn’t stop him. “Get back!” he shouted as he drew his Taser on her. “I want you to get back in your house,” he demanded. Cassi complied, not wanting to make the situation worse. 

Eventually the officer’s sergeant arrived, assessed the scene, and quickly realized a mistake had been made. Minutes later he let the boys go.

Cassi decided to hold the officer accountable for his handling of the situation and filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against him for threatening her with a Taser as she attempted to protect her children and defuse a tense situation. The district court, citing qualified immunity, dismissed Cassi’s case. (The family filed claims on behalf of the boys, which was also dismissed.)

When Cassi’s claim reached the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, two judges used inconclusive dashcam video taken that evening to decide for themselves that Cassi’s Fourth Amendment rights had not been violated. Even though Cassi appears on the video for just eight seconds—and even though Cassi is not visible when the officer threatened her with his Taser—the judges decided that the “calm and nonthreatening” mother nonetheless endangered the officer and justified his decision to threaten her with a weapon.

Normally, issues like this are decided at trial, where jurors could watch the video, hear live witness testimony, and decide who to believe. But in Cassie’s case, the judges took the case out of the jury’s hands by using the video—and the video alone—to decide for themselves what happened that night.

“Juries are supposed to decide the facts, and judges are supposed to decide the law,” said Keith Neely, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents Cassi. “The video in this case would be incredibly important evidence at a trial, but a jury will never get to see it because the appeals court denied Cassie her right to a trial of her peers.” 

By the time the officer pointed his Taser on Cassie, she’d already walked out of the frame of his dashcam. Despite that, the appeals court ruled that the video—which is an incomplete view of the scene— shows that she was threatening the officer’s safety. 

“Inconclusive video can’t short circuit the judicial process to deny someone their right to a trial by a jury of their peers,” said IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell. “Video evidence is important, but it must be evaluated in context, as one piece of evidence to be considered by a jury.”

Cassi’s appeal is part of the Institute for Justice’s Project on Immunity and Accountability. The project seeks to fight on behalf of those individuals who are denied their rights in court and hold government officials accountable for their unconstitutional actions.