Appeals Court Denies Qualified Immunity To Cop Who Argued Citizens Have No Right To Defend Themselves Against Armed Intruders

Remember, I’ve said more than once, I’m not anti-cop. I’m anti-stupid cop. This is one that qualifies.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has denied immunity to a cop involved in a no-knock raid that left the raided house’s resident, Julian Betton, paralyzed. This case was touched on briefly in a previous post discussing legal arguments made by law enforcement officers that attempt to portray people in their own homes as dangerous aggressors when police crash through their doors unannounced.

In this case, South Carolina police officer David Belue’s legal rep tried to tell the court Betton’s response to a bunch of heavily-armed men rushing through his door — grabbing a gun and moving into the hallway from the bathroom — created a situation where Betton deserved every bullet fired at him by officers. In other words, if Betton didn’t want to get shot, he shouldn’t have been in his own house when it was invaded by officers who never informed him they were police officers.

Here’s a recap of the events leading to the lawsuit, from the Fourth Circuit’s decision [PDF]:

In the afternoon of April 16, 2015, a team of plain-clothed law enforcement officers armed with “assault style rifles” used a battering ram to enter Julian Ray Betton’s dwelling to execute a warrant authorizing a search for marijuana and other illegal substances. The officers did not identify themselves as “police” or otherwise announce their presence before employing the battering ram. From the rear of his home, Betton heard a commotion but did not hear any verbal commands. Responding to the tumult, Betton pulled a gun from his waistband and held it down at his hip.

Three officers, including Myrtle Beach, South Carolina police officer David Belue, fired a total of 29 shots at Betton, striking him nine times. Betton suffered permanent paralysis resulting from his gunshot wounds.

This shooting was immediately followed by a bunch of lies. Officer Belue first claimed Betton fired his gun at officers. The ensuing investigation showed Betton’s weapon was never fired. Faced with this direct contradiction of his statement, Officer Belue revised his, claiming Betton pointed his gun at officers. According to Betton, he never got the chance to point a gun at anyone. The moment he appeared with his gun, officers opened fire.

Officers also lied about their entrance to Betton’s home. They claimed they knocked and announced their presence. Betton’s surveillance camera told the real story. Nine seconds elapsed between the officers’ arrival on Betton’s lawn and their entrance into his house. None of the officers present appeared to announce anything before bashing down his door and swarming inside.

Officer Belue also initially had asserted that the agents had knocked on Betton’s door and announced their presence, and had waited before forcibly entering the home. However, footage from the video cameras on Betton’s front porch showed that the officers had not knocked on the door or announced their presence, and had not waited any length of time before using the battering ram to gain entry.

To the contrary, the video recordings showed that the officers ran up the front steps and immediately began using the battering ram. Moreover, Garcia confirmed that the officers did not announce that they were law enforcement personnel before entering the home. The record before us also contains a statement from a former DEU agent, who related that the DEU agents “almost always forcibly entered [residences] without knocking and announcing” their presence.

Despite this — and despite inverting the Castle Doctrine to say its the invaders of a home who need protection from the home’s occupants — Officer Belue still sought qualified immunity. The district court denied his request, pointing to the facts still in dispute, as well as the officer’s actions.

Regarding Betton’s unlawful entry claim, the magistrate judge found that the officers had not knocked or announced their presence before entering, and that there were no exigent circumstances warranting abandonment of the “knock and announce” procedure. The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendation to deny qualified immunity on the unlawful entry claim, and Officer Belue has not challenged this ruling in the present appeal.

With respect to Betton’s excessive force claim, the magistrate judge found that there were material facts in dispute regarding whether Betton had pointed a gun at the officers before Officer Belue fired his weapon. Thus, the magistrate judge concluded that a jury could find that Betton did not pose an immediate deadly threat to Officer Belue or others justifying the use of deadly force.

The Appeals Court sees no reason to upend this finding, especially when there’s precedent on point saying actions like this clearly violate Constitutional rights.

[A]s of 2015, the law in this Circuit was clearly established that a person is entitled to be free from excessive force when the person “is on his property or in his residence, is in possession of a gun that he is not pointing at police officers, and is not given a warning or command to drop the gun before he is shot.”

Officer Belue also argued Julian Betton was so inherently dangerous it didn’t matter whether officers announced themselves or ordered him to put his weapon down before opening fire. This claim basically turns Betton’s mere existence into an exigent circumstance where Constitutional rights no longer apply. The Appeals Court isn’t interested in advancing this terrible legal theory.

[N]o information in Betton’s criminal history suggested that he was inherently violent to a degree that the officers would have been justified in storming into his home unannounced and in firing their weapons at him when he did not present a current threat. Notably, the search warrant was based on Betton’s conduct of selling small amounts of marijuana on two occasions. And, although the informant observed security cameras and two firearms in Betton’s home, there was no evidence indicating that Betton had engaged in threatening or violent conduct toward the confidential informant.

Betton’s case goes back to the district court and Officer Belue will have to face a jury if he doesn’t attempt to settle this lawsuit first. Denying immunity preserves the rights of homeowners to defend themselves from unexpected intruders in their homes. Officer Belue’s attempt to separate one action (his shooting of Julian Betton) from another of his actions (entering a home unannounced) is soundly rejected. Even when an officer subjectively “fears for his safety,” context matters. If officers want to use the element of surprise to their advantage in no-knock raids, they can’t turn around and claim residents have no right to react with alarm to armed intruders.