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

from the play-no-knock-games,-win-no-knock-prizes dept

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.

Filed Under: , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

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

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"Is this close? Happened just yesterday."

Not really, that cop got fired.

I think we’re looking for the examples where cops who shot unarmed people in the back/blew up some 3rd partys house/broke in and killed someone without provocation or due suspicion…and then got off without even a slap on the wrist, being staunchly defended by their colleagues and unions.

We want THOSE guys to stand up and say what they appear to be thinking: "Yeah, I can kill anyone I like and walk away. Because badge"

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

you know, if you disagree with someone, the civilized way to express it is to provide a logical argument to the contrary.

Launching a string of insults instead makes some people wonder if you are doing that because you have no such argument.

Also: In my opinion, it just sounds deranged to go on about how someone is dumb… but only providing assertions (of things not in evidence or asserting things not actually said are wrong).

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Inverted Castle Doctrine"

Wouldn’t that depend upon what it was inverted into? There is the ‘cop’s’ way, and there is the ‘suspects’ way and then there is the ‘prosecutors’ way and after that there is the ‘courts’ way and further down the line there is the ‘Appellate Courts’ way.

This is all assuming that we don’t include any ‘other imaginary’ ways, or getting to the Supreme court, whether state or federal. There are a lot of ways to look at this, and some of them are seriously humorous.

Then there is the right way, and that isn’t humorous at all.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
David says:

Small oversight here:

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.

It’s not the only time in this article this argument appears. If officers want to use the element of surprise to their advantage in no-knock raids (and there may be arguable reasons for that), they have to actually apply for a no-knock raid warrant and spell out their reasons.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Peter (profile) says:

Is there any particular reason officer Belue is not in prison?

There need to be minimum requirements for violent police officers to enjoy any priviledges. If they don’t act like police officers, they should be treated like the criminals they are.

There is no excuse whatsoever for executing a warrant while not wearing uniforms, not announcing they are police and breaking into someones home with a battering ram. For possession of marijuana?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Hyperbole only serves your opponent

While the general gist may be accurate it’s important to avoid hyperbole lest someone use it to dismiss an otherwise valid complaint.

To say that 0% of cops speak out against bad cop behavior is incorrect, I’m sure there are cops who do that(and who likely find themselves very quickly former cops as a result in most cases), they are just in the very tiny minority compared to those that, if they aren’t actively defending atrocious and criminal behavior like this at least look the other way and keep their mouths shut, providing indirect support.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Again...

"Where are these cops learning this bunk?"

Let’s say you’re a young idealistic cop new on the force. Your partner, a trusted veteran, breaks the law (and possibly arms, legs, or jaws) on multiple occasions on your very first patrol.

You going to ruin the rest of your career and possibly jeopardize your own life by outing him? More often than not ten years down the road YOU are now the veteran showing a rookie the ropes on how you can use and abuse qualified immunity.

any moose cow word says:

Yet another case where cops claim they were merely reacting to a dangerous situation…that they created in the first place. The next sensible thing to do would be for the cops to stand trial…for endangering their own lives. Why yes, that is as mental as it sounds, but no less so that trusting officers like these with guns.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Bergman (profile) says:

A mugger can't claim self defense

If a criminal goes out and mugs someone, and the victim manages to fight back, the mugger is not allowed to claim self defense if he injures his victim in the struggle. He’s certainly not allowed to kill his victim and claim self defense.

But here we have cops who are dressed like regular citizens, who illegally entered and didn’t bother to identify themselves and then tried to kill their victim.

A court evaluates a self defense plea on the basis of what the defender knew or reasonably thought they knew at that moment. Mr Betton had no way of knowing the home invasion was perpetrated by police, and if he had shot and killed them all it would have been a lawful act of self defense. But those police knew they were illegally entering, they knew they had disguised their status as police, and they opened fire anyway.

What those cops did wasn’t self defense, any more than a mugger shooting his victim would be defending himself.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Well says:

Re: A mugger can't claim self defense

Well , we live in tyranny. Most folks just don’t like to admit it. No amount of money will make him walk again. And I doubt any outcome of the civil suit will stop no knock raids or the total Survalience state. We live in a tyranny.

Anonymous Coward says:

Castle doctrine really is the heart of the 2nd Amendment

Cops are supposed to be "in fear for their lives". Always. It’s not supposed to be such and outlandish state that they can use it to justify any behavior.

It’s part of the badge/shield/uniform.

It’s also why we have the second amendment.

Government vs. unarmed populace – people fear the government.

Government vs. armed populace – government fears the people.

The government, and its agents, are supposed to fear the people. It’s supposed to be the last line in the sand to prevent the passage and enforcement of bad laws.

Police should be great at investigation, open and conspicuous interacting with the public regularly, and function like Barney Fife.. one bullet that’s usually never been loaded.

As a resource at their disposal, there should be a SWAT team they could call in, but using it needs to come with a warrant requirement, it should be a separate entity from local law enforcement, and it shouldn’t have any direct law enforcement authority… there needs a damn good reason to use it, and massive oversight involved, and it only gets called in once it’s been vetted and justified.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Castle doctrine really is the heart of the 2nd Amendment

Hadn’t read Peel’s policing by consent before… well articulated, and certainly an excellent standard to work from.

I’m not sure though we can point to a current Peelian police force, although some European ones do at least feel a bit closer.

The militarization of the police comes back to a great quote from Battlestar Galactica:

"There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people."

I’d submit that as the police become over militarized, they tend to forget that they’re there to protect and serve, instead of fighting the enemies, real or perceived.

btr1701 (profile) says:


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.

Wait… I thought we were against these home surveillance cameras on general principle these days. Now that one has provided the goods against some shady cops, we’re cool with it? How long does this last? Just until the next criminal gets caught by one? Then they’ll be horrible again?

bhull242 (profile) says:

Re: Cameras

Actually, the problem was in easily hackable security cameras or in law enforcement having ready access to data from home security cameras, not the general idea of home security cameras. A person recording stuff that happens on or near their own personal property for their own use is a completely different scenario from having the government spying on its citizens or obtaining data from privately owned surveillance cameras.

EWM says:

The whole good cop/bad cop question can be disposed of much more decisively. We need not enumerate what proportion of cops appears to be good or listen to someone’s anecdote about his Uncle Charlie, an allegedly good cop. We need only consider the following: (1) a cop’s job is to enforce the laws, all of them; (2) many of the laws are manifestly unjust, and some are even cruel and wicked; (3) therefore every cop has agreed to act as an enforcer for laws that are manifestly unjust or even cruel and wicked. There are no good cops." ~Robert Higgs

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...