My boys were taught that the police officers who protect and serve our communities are to be respected and trusted. That trust was destroyed on Jan. 8, 2018, when they were stopped at gunpoint, forced to lie on the ground, handcuffed and searched.
On this cold, rainy night the boys had spent the evening with their grandparents and were walking the short distance back to my house. This walk home turned into a nightmare that still haunts them to this day because an inexperienced police officer in Springdale, Arkansas, overreacted to a dispatch report about some alleged gang members who had fled during a traffic stop earlier that evening.
When officer Lamont Marzolf encountered my kids, who were just 12 and 14 at the time, he could have acted in a professional manner, asked them some questions, and it would have been readily apparent (1) they didn’t come close to matching the description of the suspects, and (2) they were just young kids walking back to their mom’s house after spending time with their grandparents.
Could happen to anyone: My brother wanted to go to the bathroom. Police killed him instead.
In a just and reasonable world, this conversation between my children and officer Marzolf would have resolved the situation and everyone could have gone on with their lives. Instead, he jumped out of his patrol car, drew his weapon, pointed it at my children and escalated the situation beyond all bounds of decency.
Within a minute of this event, as is clear in dashboard camera footage, I approached Marzolf, told him I am their mother and let him know they were just walking home. His response was to yell at me, point a Taser at me and order me to "get back." Their stepfather also came and identified the boys. He was ignored. Three minutes after that, their grandparents approached the scene, identified my sons and said they had just left their house.
Despite every conceivable fact pointing to the conclusion that Marzolf had the wrong people, my kids had a weapon pointed at them, were forced to the ground, handcuffed and searched – and had their trust in law enforcement betrayed.
We turned to the courts for justice
After this horrific event, I filed a lawsuit in federal court against Marzolf to vindicate the rights of my kids, to let them know what happened wasn’t right, and to try and ensure this sort of traumatic event doesn’t happen to anyone else’s children.
After the lawsuit began, Marzolf filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. This subject was unfamiliar to me. In essence, qualified immunity means officers are shielded from civil liability for their actions unless their conduct was egregious and violated a clearly established constitutional right. If the story I outlined above isn’t “egregious” or a violation of our Fourth Amendment rights, I’m just not sure what would ever rise to that level.
The court denied Marzolf's motion, but he appealed the qualified immunity issue to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court's decision and, in essence, shielded Marzolf from liability for his actions.
It's worth noting the 8th Circuit’s decision said my sons "acted bravely, respectfully, and responsibly throughout the encounter, and their family would rightly be proud of them. Likewise, their family acted responsibly and respectfully during what would have undoubtedly been a frightening experience."
Regardless of these kind words, the event happened, the boys were traumatized and the system in essence told them, “Sorry, guys, sometimes bad stuff just happens and nobody is held accountable.”
I don’t accept that answer, I don’t believe that’s what my kids deserve and, most important of all, I want my kids to live in a world where people with guns and power are held to the same standards as the rest of society. So we partnered with the Institute for Justice and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review our case. The court denied our petition Monday – but our fight is not over.
We are also fighting qualified immunity on my separate claim involving the officer threatening me with a Taser while at the same time pointing a gun at my boys. He drew a dangerous weapon at me all because I was trying to explain to him that the boys he's got under the gun were my two sons walking home from dinner. He did it even though I was not a suspect in any crime and nothing that I did put him in any danger. To deescalate the situation, I had to leave my kids alone with the officer. That feeling of hopelessness haunts me to this day.
Regardless of the outcome of this 8th Circuit appeal, my boys and I have gotten some solace from the fact we are fighting to do what’s right and will continue to do so until justice is served.
Cassi Pollreis is a mother of two boys and advocate for police accountability.
This column is part of a series by the USA TODAY Opinion team examining the issue of qualified immunity. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together. Stand Together does not provide editorial input.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: My sons were mistaken for gang members, searched at gunpoint by police