A DEU officer used unreasonable force when he rammed his way inside a home during a search warrant and unloaded a barrage of bullets at a man posing little threat, an appeals court found.
The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Virginia, rejected an attempt by the officer to overturn a decision by a South Carolina federal judge. Myrtle Beach police officer David Belue, who worked with the Drug Enforcement Unit, sought legal protection for his actions in a drug raid that left Julian Betton paralyzed.
Belue argued that Betton presented a threat to officers after they forced their way into his home and then shot at him 29 times. Betton was armed at the time, but said he did not point the gun at the officers.
Betton sued the City of Myrtle Beach, Belue, 15th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson and other DEU officers over the April 2015 raid. The DEU is a multi-jurisdictional task force Richardson leads that investigates drug activity in the Grand Strand.
DEU officers got a warrant to go into Betton’s home after he sold small amounts of marijuana. Officers entered the residence without knocking or announcing their arrival and used a battering ram to knock down the door. Betton was coming out of a different room, and officers shot him.
The defendants initially claimed they knocked and announced their presence, but video footage from security cameras on Betton’s front porch showed that was not the case, according to court paperwork. Betton said the gun was at his side, while Belue contended he pointed the gun at them.
Officers claimed Betton shot at them, but testing showed his gun was never fired.
Some of the defendants settled with Betton for $2.75 million. The case against Belue and the city remains active.
A federal judge based in South Carolina rejected Belue’s request that he be shielded from excessive force arguments. The decision was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which backed the judge’s decision. In its Nov. 5 decision, the court noted that it had to look at the evidence in the most favorable way possible to Betton.
The appeal’s court decision allows the case to resume in a South Carolina-based federal court. A jury could still determine that the officers did not use excessive force during the raid.
In its ruling, the court determined that Belue failed to use any method to identify himself as a police officer. If the DEU announced its presence, the court ruled, then Belue’s arguments about fearing Betton might hold more merit.
“Officer Belue’s failure to employ any of these protective measures rendered his use of force unreasonable,” the ruling reads.
The court also determined there was no evidence to show Betton was violent when officers decided to break down his door. The warrants were based on selling small amounts of marijuana. While Benton had previous arrests and there were guns in his home, he was not violent with a criminal informant.
The court stated that legal protection was designed to shield “bad guesses in gray areas,” and Belue did not qualify.