On a cold winter night four years ago, Casondra “Cassi” Pollreis was an innocent bystander to a terrifying situation. Her two boys, Hayden and Weston—then 12 and 14 years-old—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 rushed outside, 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 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. As she left her two boys under the officer’s gun, all she could do is say: “You’re ok guys, I promise.”
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 and her boys decided to try to hold the officer accountable. They filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the officer with Fourth Amendment claims on behalf of the boys for the wrongful arrest, and on behalf of Cassi, who—as an innocent bystander—was threatened with being tased for her attempt to protect her children. The district court, citing qualified immunity, dismissed Cassi’s claim. But today, with the help of the Institute for Justice (IJ), Cassi has appealed her case to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. (While the district court denied qualified immunity on the boys’ claims, the 8th Circuit reversed and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the boys’ appeal last week.)
“Cassi is a quintessential innocent bystander,” said Anya Bidwell, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents Cassi. “She was, if anything, dramatically calmer than most mothers would have been, and yet the police officer refused to listen to her, and instead threatened her with a taser. Police do not get to randomly point weapons at Americans for no reason. We’re hopeful the 8th Circuit will see this case for what it is—an out-of-control officer who used his authority to terrify an innocent family.”
“Qualified immunity was invented by the Supreme Court in an effort to shield police officers and other government officials from being held accountable,” said IJ Attorney Keith Neely. “The controversial doctrine, which was invented out of whole cloth by the Supreme Court, has become the first line of defense for cops and others who wantonly violate people’s constitutional rights.”
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.