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LEGAL REVIEW (R)
|Vol. 38 No. 5
|Sep / Oct 2009
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Baird v. Renbarger, No. 08-2436 (7th Cir. 2009).
How much force (or display of force) can you use at a search warrant execution scene? Answer: Not more than what is reasonably necessary under the circumstances.
A police officer participated in the execution of a search warrant that was based on the crime of altering a vehicle identification number (“VIN”) on an antique automobile. The crime itself did not involve violence; there was no suggestion that anyone at the search location was armed or dangerous; and no one at the site presented any resistance. Despite this, the officer decided to wield a 9-millimeter submachine gun, which he used to detain various people at the search site. The search ended when the officers concluded that the VIN had not actually been altered. The people who had been held temporarily filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of the Fourth Amendment and state law. The court ruled the officer was liable for the use of excessive force.
“No officer involved had reported having any suspicion that anyone at the industrial park was armed or dangerous. Nevertheless, Renbarger slung a 9-millimeter 4 [ ] submachine gun around his neck. McCracken and Renbarger then entered Baird’s shop, and McCracken told the people there to get in the center of the building and to sit down on the concrete. Everyone complied. Pointing his submachine gun, Renbarger rounded up anyone in the surrounding shops and warehouse, including a group of Amish men who were working nearby. He collected identification from everyone, except for the Amish, and held them for around two hours while the search was completed. Meanwhile, the other officers detained everyone in Robinson’s shop and searched for the [car]. The Robinson group, too, were entirely compliant. When the officers found the car, [they] examined the VIN and concluded that it had not been altered. The officers then left.”
“. . . [P]ointing guns at persons who are compliant and present no danger is a constitutional violation. . . .”
“We conclude that a reasonable jury could find that Renbarger violated the plaintiffs’ clearly established right to be free from excessive force when he seized and held them by pointing his firearm at them when there was no hint of danger. As a result, Renbarger is not entitled to qualified immunity.”
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