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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. I just wanted to point out that Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, Senator Feinstein, former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, and former attorney general John Ashcroft are responsible for this rubbish. We need to keep a eye on these corrupt, arrogant, and incompetent fools.

  2. Well I guess our politicians have decided to give these idiot federal prosecutors unlimited power. Now if I guy bounces a fifty-dollar check, the U.S. attorney can intentionally wait for twenty-five years or so and have the check swabbed for DNA and file charges. These power hungry federal prosecutors now have unlimited power to mess with people. we can thank Wisconsin's Jim Sensenbrenner and Diane Feinstein, John Achcroft and Bill Frist for this one. Way to go, idiots.

  3. I wonder if the USSR had electronic voting machines that changed the ballot after it was cast? Oh well, at least we have a free media serving as vicious watchdog and exposing all of the rot in the system! (Insert rimshot)

  4. Jose, you are assuming those in power do not wish to be totalitarian. My experience has convinced me otherwise. Constitutionalists are nearly as rare as hens teeth among the powerbrokers "managing" us for The Glorious State. Oh, and your point is dead on, el correcta mundo. Keep the Founders’ (1791 & 1851) vision alive, my friend, even if most all others, and especially the ruling junta, chase only power and money (i.e. mammon)

  5. Hypocrisy in high places, absolute immunity handed out like Halloween treats (it is the stuff of which tyranny is made) and the belief that government agents are above the constitutions and cannot be held responsible for mere citizen is killing, perhaps has killed, The Republic. And yet those same power drunk statists just reel on down the hallway toward bureaucratic fascism.

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