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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Officer’s Submachine Gun Was Excessive

(CN) - An Indiana police officer used excessive force when he pointed a 9 mm submachine gun at a group of workers, including several Amish men, during a routine search of an industrial park, the 7th Circuit ruled.

Joe Baird and Randy Robinson, joint owners of the industrial park in Shelbyville, Ind., sued Officer John Renbarger in federal court for civil rights violations and excessive force after Renbarger rounded up workers and held them at gunpoint with a submachine gun, while other officers checked out a suspicious vehicle identification number on a 1937 Lincoln Zephyr hot rod.

Renbarger moved for summary judgment, asserting qualified immunity. The district court denied his request, ruling that a jury would likely find his actions "so unreasonable that they would violate clearly established law under the Fourth Amendment."

Renbarger appealed, but the 7th Circuit held the lower court's decision.

Though courts typically give broad leeway to law enforcement officers given the danger of their jobs, the use of a submachine gun in this instance was "objectively unreasonable in the setting that Renbarger faced," Judge Diane P. Wood wrote.

"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," Wood wrote. "Renbarger's subjective concerns do not transform this setting into one calling for such a heavy-handed use of force. Moreover, the facts show that the police were familiar with the site and had no reason to believe that there would be resistance."

None of the officers involved in the search had any reason to suspect that there would be a violent confrontation at the industrial park, and the alleged crime - a suspicious VIN number that was later found to be legal - did not warrant the use of a 9 mm submachine gun, Wood added.

"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," Wood wrote. "The Fourth Amendment protects against this type of behavior by the police."

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