ILNews

Police officer not entitled to qualified immunity

Back to TopE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a police officer isn't entitled to qualified immunity in a suit claiming excessive force because the officer didn't have a reason to point a submachine gun at the plaintiffs during the execution of a search warrant.

In Joe Baird, et al. v. John Renbarger,  No. 08-2436, Joe Baird and others who had been held temporarily during the search of Baird's industrial park filed a suit against the police involved, including John Renbarger, for excessive force. The District Court granted summary judgment for the defendants but denied Renbarger's motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.

The police got a search warrant for a 1937 Lincoln Zephyr that belonged to Baird. Baird had a police officer verify the car's vehicle identification number, which an officer signed an affidavit verifying it. Later, that officer obtained the search warrant for the car because he thought the VIN may have been altered.

During the search of the industrial park, Renbarger carried a 9-millimeter submachine gun and pointed it at everyone he rounded up in the various buildings. Everyone cooperated and was released two hours later. The officers concluded the VIN wasn't altered.

The 7th Circuit used the two-step inquiry from Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001), to determine when Renbarger should be shielded from liability: if a constitutional right has been violated, and if so, whether the right was clearly established at the time the officer acted. It also relied on Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989), to conclude the use of the submachine gun was objectively unreasonable in the setting Renbarger faced. The situation involved the alteration of a VIN, not a crime involving possession of drugs or illegal weapons, wrote Judge Diane Wood. There was also no reason to suspect there was any threat to the officers' safety nor had anyone attempted to resist or flee.

Renbarger argued that he didn't know who may be in the industrial park at the time of the search, but his subjective concerns don't transform the setting into one calling for such a heavy-handed use of force, wrote the judge.

"Renbarger urges this court to view his behavior at a high level of generality; he sees it as the mere pointing of a gun. We decline to take this perspective," she wrote. "Renbarger pointed a submachine gun at various people when there was no suggestion of danger, either from the alleged crime that was being investigated or the people he was targeting. The Fourth Amendment protects against this type of behavior by the police."

A reasonable jury could conclude he violated the plaintiffs' clearly established right to be free from excessive force when he seized and held them by pointing a firearm at them when there wasn't any danger, so he isn't entitled to qualified immunity.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. I gave tempparry guardship to a friend of my granddaughter in 2012. I went to prison. I had custody. My daughter went to prison to. We are out. My daughter gave me custody but can get her back. She was not order to give me custody . but now we want granddaughter back from friend. She's 14 now. What rights do we have

  2. This sure is not what most who value good governance consider the Rule of Law to entail: "In a letter dated March 2, which Brizzi forwarded to IBJ, the commission dismissed the grievance “on grounds that there is not reasonable cause to believe that you are guilty of misconduct.”" Yet two month later reasonable cause does exist? (Or is the commission forging ahead, the need for reasonable belief be damned? -- A seeming violation of the Rules of Profession Ethics on the part of the commission) Could the rule of law theory cause one to believe that an explanation is in order? Could it be that Hoosier attorneys live under Imperial Law (which is also a t-word that rhymes with infamy) in which the Platonic guardians can do no wrong and never owe the plebeian class any explanation for their powerful actions. (Might makes it right?) Could this be a case of politics directing the commission, as celebrated IU Mauer Professor (the late) Patrick Baude warned was happening 20 years ago in his controversial (whisteblowing) ethics lecture on a quite similar topic: http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1498&context=ilj

  3. I have a case presently pending cert review before the SCOTUS that reveals just how Indiana regulates the bar. I have been denied licensure for life for holding the wrong views and questioning the grand inquisitors as to their duties as to state and federal constitutional due process. True story: https://www.scribd.com/doc/299040839/2016Petitionforcert-to-SCOTUS Shorter, Amici brief serving to frame issue as misuse of govt licensure: https://www.scribd.com/doc/312841269/Thomas-More-Society-Amicus-Brown-v-Ind-Bd-of-Law-Examiners

  4. Here's an idea...how about we MORE heavily regulate the law schools to reduce the surplus of graduates, driving starting salaries up for those new grads, so that we can all pay our insane amount of student loans off in a reasonable amount of time and then be able to afford to do pro bono & low-fee work? I've got friends in other industries, radiology for example, and their schools accept a very limited number of students so there will never be a glut of new grads and everyone's pay stays high. For example, my radiologist friend's school accepted just six new students per year.

  5. I totally agree with John Smith.

ADVERTISEMENT