The seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has decided that an Indiana police officer used excessive force when he pointed a submachine gun at some Amish men, and others, during a routine search. The court upheld a district court decision that the officer is not entitled to qualified immunity in such an incident.
The problem started when the Shelbyville, Indiana, police decided to check the Vehicle Identification Number of a 1937 Lincoln Zephyr hot rod belonging to Joe Baird of that city. The officer verified the VIN number, but later he decided that the number might have been altered so he went to an industrial park, jointly owned by Baird and Randy Robinson of Shelbyville, to check again.
The officer, John Renbarger, pointed a nine mm submachine gun at Baird, and everyone else he could round up at the industrial park, including some Amish men, in the process of checking the suspect VIN number a second time. No one resisted his orders, and he released them after two hours. He determined, after he looked again, that the VIN number in the vehicle had not been altered.
Baird and Robinson sued the officer in federal district court for his use of excessive force and for violating their civil rights. The district court found in favor of the two men, finding that the officer’s actions were “so unreasonable that they would violate clearly established law under the Fourth Amendment.”
Renbarger appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals, which denied his claim. Judge Diane P. Wood, writing for the Court of Appeals, stated that the officer’s use of a submachine gun to hold the people was “objectively unreasonable in the setting that Renbarger faced.”
She wrote that the officer’s expressed concerns about safety at the industrial park could not have reasonably required him to use such heavy-handed force. The police officer was familiar with the setting, and had no reason to suspect that anyone would resist him. She indicated, “we see a scene of peaceable folks (including the famously pacifist Amish) going about their business, while the police inspect various vehicles for identifying information.” The police officer’s use of the submachine gun was thus quite unwarranted.
Judge Wood went on to write, in her opinion for the court, “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.” In fact, “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.”