A federal judge found a defense attorney’s argument “strained credulity” as he argued on behalf of one of the DEU agents who shot at Julian Betton.
Betton filed the federal suit after he was shot nine times by agents with the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit in 2015 during a drug raid. DEU agents fired nearly 30 shots and left Betton as a paraplegic.
Betton had surveillance equipment on the front porch that showed officers rushing up and using a battering ram to enter the apartment. There is no audio in the video, but officers do not appear to knock and announce their presence before waiting and entering.
DEU Officer David Belue filed a notice in federal court to appeal Judge Marvin Quattlebaum’s 2018 ruling that allows a civil suit alleging excessive force to continue.
Belue’s attorneys argued Wednesday for qualified immunity — a federal law that shields government officials from being sued for discretionary actions performed within their official capacity unless those actions violated “clearly established” federal law or constitutional rights — before a panel of three judges for the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals based in Richmond, Virginia.
The judges can be heard in audio posted on the court’s website routinely combating Belue’s attorneys’ claims that the unlawful nature of the police’s entry should not impact whether or not their client should face an unlawful force suit.
“You seem to want to restrict the unlawful force analysis to the moment they pulled the trigger; how far back does it go in your judgment?” one of the judges asks.
Belue’s attorney James Battle replies that it begins when Betton drew his firearm, though much of the ensuing arguments question whether or not Betton’s actions constituted him doing that.
“So, nothing that happened before that — the breaking into his house unannounced, not being identified as police, none of that counted?” the judge asks, which Battle replies is “accurate.”
One of the judges also takes note of how all the officers, including Belue, initially lied about knocking on Betton’s door and identifying themselves as police officers as well as claiming that Betton fired at them.
Battle tries to distinguish those claims as falsehoods, as opposed to making a conscious decision to lie, but one of the judges replies that they were lies in his judgment.
“How is this a gray area for the police?” one judge asks. “… Even if we give them the first shot, how do they have a right to unload 20 something shots at this man? … It’s just so shocking what happened in this case for a two-bit marijuana deal.”
Sandra Senn, another attorney representing Belue, later argues that her client was the third officer into the room, and he had a duty to protect himself and the other agents.
“If qualified immunity exists, it would certainly exist if an officer sees a gun coming up,” Senn said.
But one of the judges quickly responded that there’s no indication, based on the facts accepted by the district court, that the gun was coming up.
It is typical for panels of judges to aggressively question attorneys and their argument of the law during the appeals process.
Betton’s attorneys declined to comment on the oral arguments, and Belue’s attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Betton filed a civil suit against Myrtle Beach and several members of the DEU. Some of the individual defendants settled with Betton in 2018 for $2.75 million. Belue and the city are the only remaining defendants.
Both the city and Belue sought rulings in their favor for the civil case. But, Quattlebaum rejected most of those efforts. The city contended it had no operational control over the DEU, as the agency is the efforts of a dozen law enforcement groups. Quattlebaum ruled a jury could decide the city knew about the DEU’s apparent no-knock practice on search warrants.
The judge also rejected claims that Belue should not face excessive force allegations. Belue was the first officer at Betton’s door and argued officers believed that Betton was a fugitive from Ohio. The officer also contends that Betton openly displayed and had easy access to guns and drew a weapon in the officers’ presence.