Describing the case as “horrendous” and “outrageous,” a three-judge panel on Wednesday intensely questioned attorneys for a Myrtle Beach police officer who is being sued by a man who was shot nine times during a 2015 drug raid.
The shooting left Julian Betton of Myrtle Beach paralyzed from the waist down. Last year, Betton settled a federal lawsuit against two of the agents who shot him and the leaders of the region’s drug unit for $2.75 million. However, his case against the Myrtle Beach Police Department and MBPD officer David Belue continues.
Attorneys for both sides were in Richmond, Virginia, this week for a Fourth Circuit of Appeals hearing that dealt with whether Belue has qualified immunity, a legal defense police can use against excessive force claims.
During the hearing, Belue’s attorneys argued that whether Betton felt threatened during the raid was irrelevant; the issue was whether the officer acted appropriately under the circumstances.
“Julian Betton’s mindset, which I believe is where the court is focusing, is not part of the analysis in a use of force cause of action,” Belue's lawyer James Battle said, according to a recording on the court’s website. “It is from the perspective of the officer.”
The judges, however, challenged that argument.
“How is this case a bad guess in a gray area under our law?” Judge Barbara Milano Keenan said. “It doesn’t even seem to be a guess. They just came in to unload on this guy.”
The shooting happened at Betton’s Withers Swash apartment on April 16, 2015. The men who shot him were members of the 15thCircuit Drug Enforcement Unit, an agency made up of officers from departments throughout the region.
Agents came to Betton’s apartment looking for drugs. A confidential informant had purchased marijuana from Betton on two prior occasions and authorities had obtained warrants for his arrest, according to public records.
Court records indicate the DEU didn’t have a formal policy for executing search warrants when Betton was shot. Police can obtain no-knock warrants, but agents had a standard warrant when they raided Betton’s apartment that day. That means they would have been required to knock and announce themselves before entering.
Police initially said they had knocked on Betton's door and announced themselves. When they went inside, they said he started shooting at them, prompting them to return fire.
However, the evidence revealed the officers' accounts weren’t accurate. Although there’s no body camera or dash cam video of the shooting, Betton had a surveillance system at his apartment and that video depicts what happened outside the home.
The video shows the officers directing one of Betton's neighbors to get on the ground. One officer then opens a screen door before another rams Betton’s front door. The video does not show an officer knocking. The video has no audio, so it’s unclear what, if anything, was said.
A neighbor who was on the ground told state investigators that the drug agents never knocked or identified themselves as police.
Betton has said he had a gun in the waistband of his pants that day, but he denied shooting at the police.
A State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) investigation determined Betton told the truth: He never fired his weapon.
Yet an independent prosecutor who reviewed the case concluded that the men who shot Betton — Belue, Frank Waddell and Chris Dennis — acted in self defense.
They did not face criminal charges. The matter is now in the realm of civil court.
During Wednesday’s hearing, judges pressed Belue’s attorneys about the drug unit's actions that day.
They said the police knocked down Betton’s door with a battering ram, did not announce themselves and were not wearing police uniforms. They asked why it was unreasonable for Betton to be holding a gun when he didn’t know who had just entered his home.
“Have you ever seen a case more outrageous on the facts?” Keenan asked.
Judges Robert King and Joseph Goodwin also questioned the actions of the police.
Here are some of the panel’s statements:
• “Here [the police] lied or made false representations. Every single one of them said they knocked and identified themselves as police. It’s no longer contested that none of that’s true.”
• “I’m going to weigh in on this just for the heck of it. In this case, it was a lie. That’s my judgment.”
• “This man, who saw these armed invaders … he was nothing, from the record, but a nickel and dime drug dealer with a few grams of marijuana. You wouldn’t think that all these armed commandoes were coming into your house. You had no idea they were police. That has to be part of the issue here. Not whether there was a legal issue of unlawful entry, but his reaction when confronted in a small space with this commando unit.”
• “The question is that did the police have a right to unload their weapons into somebody in his private home when he is standing there with a gun at his hip. Not pointed at the officers, not firing at the officers. Do they have a right to unload their weaponry into this person?”
When faced with questions about the officers’ honesty, Belue’s attorney Battle tried to explain the difference between the officers’ statements and the facts of the case.
“I’ll draw a distinction between a lie and a falsehood,” he said. “I draw a distinction between saying something that ends up being false and making a conscious decision to lie.”
Battle also insisted that the issue before the court was whether excessive force was used, not the way the agents entered Betton’s home.
Narendra Ghosh, one of Betton’s attorneys, disagreed with Battle and stressed that how the officers entered the apartment is important to the question of whether Belue acted appropriately.
“All those things are relevant,” he said. “When officers have completely failed to put a home resident on any sort of notice that these are law enforcement officers and they have broken into his home, they cannot presume he that is a deadly threat merely because he possesses a gun.”
The panel has not issued a ruling yet.
Jonny McCoy, Betton’s Myrtle Beach attorney, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea also could not be reached, although the city typically doesn’t comment on pending litigation.