FEATURED IN TRAINING
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided a case in which a police officer from Shelbyville, Ind., assisted in the execution of a search warrant. During the search, the officer held individuals at bay by displaying a firearm at them for nearly two hours. The appellate court held that a jury might find that the officer s actions could violate the Fourth Amendment.
Baird v. Renbarger Facts
In Baird v. Renbarger, the people who had been temporarily detained during the execution of a search warrant filed a civil rights lawsuit against several police officers and police agencies involved in the execution of the warrant. Following is a brief summation of what happened.
Joe Baird and Randy Robinson co-owned an industrial park located in Shelbyville. Both owned buildings within the industrial park: Baird had a body shop for antique cars; Robinson had a shop for auto sales. Apparently, Baird had purchased a 1937 Lincoln Zephyr several years prior to the incident in this case, and because the vehicle had an out-of-state title, he had his office manager contact the Shelbyville Police Department (SPD) to check the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the Zephyr.
A Shelbyville officer responded to the request, examined the VIN and signed an affidavit verifying the number was legitimate. However, when the officer returned to the police department, he contacted a prosecutor and informed him of his belief that the VIN had been altered. The officer obtained a search warrant for the Zephyr, and the warrant was executed the following morning.
The officer, along with two additional officers from the SPD (one of whom is the subject of this article); two officers from the Indianapolis Police Department; and an employee of the National Insurance Crime Bureau went to the industrial park to execute the warrant. None of the officers had any information that anyone at the industrial park was armed and dangerous. But one of the Shelbyville officers entered Baird s shop with a 9 mm submachine gun slung around his neck. Pointing his submachine gun, [the officer] 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.  Once the officers located the Zephyr, the individual from the crime bureau examined the VIN and found that it hadn't been altered. The officers left the shop. No one was arrested.
The individuals who were detained filed a lawsuit against the officers alleging that their rights to be free from an unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment were violated. Many of the claims were dismissed by the district court. However, the court denied the gun-slinging officer's motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. He then appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Appellate Court Decision
The issue on appeal was whether the officer violated the plaintiffs rights through an unreasonable seizure done with the use of excessive force. That is, was the use of a submachine gun to gather the plaintiffs and detain them during a search unreasonable?
The appellate court reiterated that in determining whether a seizure is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment depends on whether it was objectively reasonable, judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.  That determination requires an analysis of the facts and circumstances of the scenario, including (1) the severity of the crime at issue, (2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and (3) whether he s actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. 
The appellate court found the application of the Graham factors to this case demonstrated that the use of the submachine gun was objectively unreasonable. With respect to the first factor, the crime being investigated was altering a VIN. According to the court, the crime didn t involve use of force, nor was it similar to crimes where weapons are likely to be found, such as possession of illegal weapons or drug crimes.
Regarding the second factor, the court found there was no indication of the existence of a threat to officer safety. One of the officers was at the industrial park the day before and gave no warning regarding officer safety being an issue. The court also found that the police were familiar with the site.
Finally, there was no evidence that any of the plaintiffs resisted the officer s efforts to detain them or attempted to flee. Taking these facts together and in the light most favorable to plaintiffs the appellate court found that a reasonable jury could decide that the officer used excessive force during their brief detention by displaying his firearm.
The appellate court next addressed whether the right at issue was clearly established. The court was careful to analyze the issue in narrow terms. That is, was it permissible for an officer to point 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 court believed that a reasonable jury might conclude that it was not.
In its analysis, the court reiterated that not all instances of pointing weapons at individuals would violate the Fourth Amendment. Indeed, the appellate court stated officers are permitted to do so when thereisreason to fear danger.  For example, if officers point their weapons at an individual they reasonably believe was involved in a violent crime, such as armed robbery, when confronting an individual in a bad neighborhood who refuses to stop when directed, during a search of a residence for weapons, confronting a suspect who is believed to be armed with a handgun, catching up to an individual who fled from the police, or confronting individuals suspected of committing drug crimes who are verbally abusive and when the police are outnumbered, their conduct will likely be reasonable under the circumstances. It s when officers point their weapons at individuals when there is no hint of danger that they may violate Fourth Amendment rights.
The Baird case doesn t stand for the proposition that police officers will violate the Fourth Amendment every time they point their firearms at individuals being detained. Instead, a Fourth Amendment violation might occur when officers are confronted with a non-serious crime or have no reason to believe that their safety is at risk or are dealing with cooperative individuals.
That said, each case is different. When officers point their firearms at individuals, they must be able to articulate the basis for doing so. It doesn t necessarily have to be in writing, but officers must be able to state the reason(s) for their actions when questioned.
The reason(s) can be as simple as stating the nature of the crime if it s a crime involving the use of weapons, it s reasonable for officers to display their firearms. It can be the result of being outnumbered the more suspects in comparison to officers, the more likely it will be deemed reasonable to display a firearm. The reason can be the demeanor of the suspect if they refuse officers orders to do certain things, such as display their hands, officers would be permitted to display their firearms. The list is endless, but the overall question remains: Would your reasoning for pointing your weapon at an individual be deemed reasonable by your peers?
References & Notes
1. ____F.3d____, No. 08-2436, 2009 WL 2357882 (7th Cir. 2009).
2. The facts in this case stem from those set forth in the district court opinion that Officer Renbarger appealed.
3. Baird, 2009 WL 2357882 at *2.
5. Id.at *3 (citing Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989)).
7. A district court deciding a motion for summary judgment must view the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs.
8. Baird,at *4.
Do not construe this column as legal advice. Each police officer should consult with an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice on any specific issue.