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Police officer not entitled to qualified immunity

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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.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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