(CN) – A South Carolina officer involved in the shooting of a Myrtle Beach man – paralyzing him – after storming into his house without knocking, is not immune in an excessive-force lawsuit, the Fourth Circuit ruled Tuesday.
The federal appeals court affirmed that officer David Belue is not entitled to summary judgment against claims that he unnecessarily used deadly force against Julian Betton.
Under a search warrant for marijuana and other illegal substances, a team of plainclothes law enforcement officers armed with “assault-style rifles” used a battering ram to enter Betton’s duplex-style residence on April 16, 2015.
Three officers, including Belue, who were a part of a drug enforcement unit, fired a total of 29 shots at Betton, striking him nine times.
While Betton carried a firearm by his side, that fact does not qualify as the type of “bad guesses in gray areas” that qualified immunity is designed to protect, the Fourth Circuit found Tuesday.
According to the complaint, an investigation revealed that Betton never discharged the .45 caliber pistol that Belue accused him of pointing and firing at officers.
The incident left Betton paralyzed.
According to the ruling, the officers had a warrant requiring they knock on Betton’s door before forcing entry. The warrant was informed by an undercover operation, which allegedly busted Betton for selling drugs.
U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Keenan wrote for a three-judge panel Tuesday that “no 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.”
Betton’s neighbor, Santos Garcia, was standing next to Betton’s front porch steps when officer Belue and others arrived.
Belue pointed his firearm at Garcia and ordered him to the ground, according to the complaint. The officer then quickly led a group of five others to the front screened door and opened it without knocking or announcing their arrival, while an agent used a battering ram to enter the home.
Betton claimed that he was exiting the bathroom when he noticed people in his home, unaware that the “intruders” were police officers. He held his gun by his hip, according to the complaint, just before officers began to fire shots toward him.
“Construing the facts in the light most favorable to Betton, as we are required to do at this stage of the proceedings, we agree with the district court that disputes of material fact preclude an award of summary judgment,” wrote Keenan, an Obama appointee. “A jury reasonably could find under the facts presented that Betton did not pose a threat to the officers justifying the use of deadly force.”
The agents ultimately recovered about 220 grams of marijuana from Betton’s home, a substance that is illegal in South Carolina.
U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Bruce King and U.S. District Judge Joseph Robert Goodwin, Bill Clinton appointees, joined Keenan on the panel. Goodwin sat by designation from the Southern District of West Virginia.