Agents from the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit routinely forced their way into suspects’ homes without knocking on doors or announcing themselves, and some officers didn’t even know those actions are required by law, according to public records.
Portions of drug agents’ testimony appear in a 45-page report from U.S. Magistrate Kaymani West that was filed Monday in federal court. The documents are connected to a lawsuit filed by a Myrtle Beach man who was shot nine times by police in 2015 during a drug raid at his apartment. The shooting left Julian Betton, the man whose home was raided, a paraplegic.
The City of Myrtle Beach and Myrtle Beach police officer David Belue are defendants in the lawsuit, and they asked the court for a summary judgment dismissing the case. However, the judge not only recommend the case proceed, her report highlights new evidence that DEU agents often plowed through the doors of suspects without announcing their presence, which they are required to do to comply with the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. The judge pointed out the critical information in her recommendation came from the officers themselves.
“Based on this testimony, which supports an inference of numerous alleged violations of the knock and announce requirement, the DEU had a widespread and persistent policy of executing search warrants without knocking and announcing and waiting a reasonable time before entering a private residence,” West wrote.
The DEU is an agency made up of officers from departments throughout the region.
Court records indicate the DEU didn’t have a formal policy for executing search warrants when Betton was shot at his Withers Swash apartment on April 16, 2015.
Police can obtain no-knock warrants, but agents had a standard warrant when they raided Betton’s apartment that day, which means they would have been required to knock and announce themselves before entering.
The shooting led former Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall to raise questions about why the DEU’s policy manual didn’t address procedures for officers entering private property.
Three months after Betton was wounded, Gall emailed DEU Commander Bill Knowles and told him he couldn’t find a policy in the DEU’s manual for executing search warrants. The city police department has such a policy. Knowles responded that he didn’t believe the unit had any policy outlining search warrant execution.
“It appears that the search & seizure policy follows our policy verbatim, until it reaches the search warrant section...then DEU’s policy has nothing,” Gall wrote. “I thought maybe I missed something or it was not copied to my file. If it’s absent, it’s certainly a concern.”
On the day Betton was shot, officers came to his 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.
When the shooting happened, police 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 officer’s accounts weren’t accurate.
Although there’s no body camera or dash cam video of the shooting, Betton’s surveillance 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.
However, the 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 denies drawing it and 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.
Police recovered an AR-15 rifle and a handgun from Betton’s apartment, as well as about 8 ounces of marijuana.
During the shooting, Betton suffered injuries to his colon, bladder, liver and pancreas. He is paralyzed from the waist down.
In March, Betton settled a lawsuit with Waddell, Dennis, Knowles, DEU agent Chad Guess, DEU official Dean Bishop and Solicitor Jimmy Richardson, who oversees the DEU, for $2.75 million. Betton’s attorney Jonny McCoy said then that the case would continue against the city.
“So far, Myrtle Beach has refused to accept its responsibility,” McCoy said. “We intend to pursue this case until Julian is fully compensated for his injuries.”
City spokesman Mark Kruea said city officials typically don't comment on pending litigation.
McCoy also declined to comment on West’s report, but the document details the testimony of DEU agents who said the Betton raid was typical of the searches they conducted.
“[I]t’s not the law to knock and announce,” Guess, the lead agent who used a battering ram to take down Betton’s door, testified. “You know, it’s just not.”
David McIntyre, a former Myrtle Beach police officer who participated in the Betton raid, said in an affidavit that during his time on the drug unit he assisted on about 30 search warrants and rarely saw agents announce themselves.
“[I]n my experience supporting DEU residential search warrant operations from approximately October 2014 through April 2015, DEU agents almost always forcibly entered without knocking and announcing, or simultaneously with announcing,” McIntyre said.
The judge’s report states that the officers’ own testimony lends credence to the arguments from Betton’s lawyers.
“The undersigned recommends a finding that a reasonable jury could find that both the City and Chief Gall had actual or constructive knowledge of the alleged widespread practice or custom of executing standard search warrants without first knocking and announcing by virtue of the extent of the misconduct highlighted by the numerous instances that Betton points to in the record and by virtue of the fact that Belue and Waddell testified that the manner in which the warrant was executed on the date in question was consistent with the DEU’s standard practice,” West wrote.
Another issue highlighted by the judge is that the DEU failed to reprimand the officers involved in the Betton case for their false statements or their conduct.
During his deposition, Knowles, the DEU chief, said his agents “didn’t do anything wrong.”
“On these facts, a reasonable jury could conclude that the City’s failure to address and correct the alleged deficiencies in DEU search warrant policies and practices exhibited deliberate indifference,” the judge wrote, adding that the city entered into an agreement with the DEU and ratified its procedures.
“Chief Gall sat on the DEU’s Governing Board and had the authority to create and oversee DEU policy. The DEU failed to include in its manual a discussion of the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that law enforcement officers must knock, announce and wait a reasonable time when executing standard search warrants.”
When asked about West’s report, Richardson, the solicitor, said he didn’t want to comment on the pending lawsuit. But he did point out that the DEU had revised its policy manual since Betton was shot.
“We’ve updated it,” he said.
It’s not unusual for drug units not to have specific policies for executing search warrants, said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who now teaches criminal law at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law.
“Joint task forces can have their own policies, but often they don’t,” he said. “Sometimes they adopt one of the member agencies’ policies and procedures, and sometimes they follow (more or less) the policies and procedures of whatever jurisdiction they’re operating in, but very often they make ad hoc tactical and strategic decisions that aren’t grounded in any written policies or procedures.”
When it comes to inaccuracies in reporting, Stoughton said determining fault can be tricky.
“A reputable police agency, in my view, should have a strict approach to dealing with officers who intentionally lie on reports: I’d suggest that the default discipline should be termination, although I’m willing to concede that there may be circumstances in which the agency might properly impose some lesser discipline,” he said, adding that an example of an exception would be if the officer’s deception did not have any adverse effects. “On the other hand, officers suffer from the same limits on their perceptions and memory that we all do, so I wouldn’t default to disciplining officers for including information on their reports that later turns out to be inaccurate.”
Stoughton did say there isn’t any ambiguity when it comes to whether police must knock and announce themselves.
“The Supreme Court has held that knock-and-announce is a legal requirement under the Fourth Amendment unless there is an exception under the circumstances,” he said. “Officers typically get both legal and tactical training in the academy, so I would expect them to get at least some exposure to procedures related to entering a home with and without a warrant.”