In Robinson v. Solano County, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had an opportunity to review whether a police officer’s pointing of a handgun at a citizen without actually pulling the trigger may violate the Fourth Amendment under some circumstances. The plaintiff in this case was James Robinson, an African-American retired police officer from San Francisco. When the events giving rise to this lawsuit occurred, Robinson was living on a five acre parcel of land in a rural area. Robinson was 64 years old and raised livestock. On the day in question, Robinson observed two dogs on his fenced property killing his livestock. Robinson took a shotgun and shot the dogs. One of the dogs was killed but the second one took off wounded. Robinson searched for the wounded dog. In doing so he went on to the pubic road with the shotgun where he was confronted by his neighbor, who owned the dogs. Though Robinson told the neighbor he did not realize the dogs were hers, an altercation ensued. The neighbor, Mrs. Reyes returned home and called the police.
As a result of Mrs. Reyes’ call, the police were dispatched to a call of a man in the “middle of the street with a gun, who had shot two dogs and is yelling at this time.” By the time officers arrived, Robinson was in his house. He observed the six police cars and started the 135 foot trip from his house to the public roadway to explain to the officers what had happened. Robinson was not carrying his shotgun. As he approached the officers he gave his name and said that he was the man involved with the dogs. Officer Cauwells pointed his gun at Robinson’s head from a distance of six to eight feet and ordered Robinson to put his hands up. As Robinson put his hands up, Cauwell moved to within three to four feet with his gun pointed at Robinson’s head. Two other officers handcuffed Robinson and put him in a cruiser where he remained while the officers interviewed Mrs. Reyes and other neighbors. The officers did not search Robinson who was carrying a knife that was never discovered. Robinson was never allowed to explain what had occurred. Robinson was released after the officers determined that he had done nothing illegal.
The court decided that the pointing of a gun at Robinson was an unjustified and excessive use of force. The court pointed out that Robinson was approaching the police peacefully and they could clearly see that he was not armed with a shotgun. Further the court noted that Mr. Robinson had committed no crime by his actions at the outset. After finding that a constitutional violation had taken place, the court concluded that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because the law was not clearly established at the time of the incident in 1995. The court did point out that the law is now clearly established that pointing a gun toward the “head of an apparently unarmed suspect during an investigation can be a violation of the Fourth Amendment, especially where the individual poses no particular danger.”