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Betton v. Belue

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

November 5, 2019

JULIAN RAY BETTON, Plaintiff - Appellee,
DAVID BELUE, in his individual capacity, Defendant-Appellant, and BILL KNOWLES, in his individual capacity and official capacity as Commander of the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit Task Force; JIMMY RICHARDSON, II, in his individual capacity and official capacity as 15th Circuit Solicitor; DEAN BISHOP, in his individual capacity; CHAD GUESS, in his individual capacity; FRANK WADDELL, in his individual capacity; CHRIS DENNIS, in his individual capacity; THE CITY OF MYRTLE BEACH, Defendants.

          Argued: September 18, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Florence. A. Marvin Quattlebaum, Jr., District Judge. (4:15-cv-04638-AMQ-KDW)


          Michael Warner Battle, BATTLE LAW FIRM, LLC, Conway, South Carolina; Sandra J. Senn, SENN LEGAL, LLC, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellant.

          Narendra K. Ghosh, PATTERSON HARKAVY, LLP, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          James Richard Battle, II, BATTLE LAW FIRM, LLC, Conway, South Carolina, for Appellant.

          Burton Craige, Bradley J. Bannon, Paul E. Smith, PATTERSON HARKAVY LLP, Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Jonny McCoy, LAW OFFICE OF JONNY MCCOY, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for Appellee.

          Before KING and KEENAN, Circuit Judges, and Joseph R. GOODWIN, United States District Judge for the Southern District of West Virginia, sitting by designation.


         In the afternoon of April 16, 2015, a team of plain-clothed law enforcement officers armed with "assault style rifles" used a battering ram to enter Julian Ray Betton's dwelling to execute a warrant authorizing a search for marijuana and other illegal substances. The officers did not identify themselves as "police" or otherwise announce their presence before employing the battering ram. From the rear of his home, Betton heard a commotion but did not hear any verbal commands. Responding to the tumult, Betton pulled a gun from his waistband and held it down at his hip.

         Three officers, including Myrtle Beach, South Carolina police officer David Belue, fired a total of 29 shots at Betton, striking him nine times. Betton suffered permanent paralysis resulting from his gunshot wounds. While Officer Belue originally maintained that Betton had been the first person on the scene to fire a weapon, a later investigation revealed that Betton never discharged his .45 caliber pistol. Thereafter, Officer Belue revised his account of the events, stating that Betton had pointed his weapon at the officers.

         Betton filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Officer Belue, alleging unlawful entry and the use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Officer Belue moved for summary judgment on the ground of qualified immunity, and the district court denied his motion. Officer Belue appeals only the court's denial of qualified immunity with respect to the excessive force claim.

         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. 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. Additionally, based on our decision in Cooper v. Sheehan, 735 F.3d 153 (4th Cir. 2013), we further hold that Betton's Fourth Amendment right to be free from the use of excessive force was clearly established at the time the incident occurred. We therefore affirm the district court's order and remand the case for further proceedings.


         Officer Belue was a member of a multi-jurisdictional "drug enforcement unit" (DEU) in South Carolina charged with the investigation of individuals participating in illegal drug activity. In 2015, DEU agents began investigating Betton, who lived in a duplex-style residence in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Agent Chad Guess led the investigation and worked with a confidential informant, who had purchased marijuana from Betton at his home on two occasions. The informant paid Betton about $100 in each transaction; the respective amounts purchased were seven grams and eight grams of marijuana.

         Based on this information, Agent Guess obtained a warrant authorizing a search of Betton's residence for marijuana and other illegal drugs. This warrant permitted entry into Betton's residence using a standard "knock and announce" procedure requiring the officers, before forcibly effecting entry in the absence of a response, to knock on the dwelling's entry door and to announce their presence. See United States v. Dunnock, 295 F.3d 431, 434 (4th Cir. 2002).

         Prior to executing the search, Agent Guess led about ten DEU agents, including Officer Belue, in a pre-search briefing. The briefing materials included information that the informant had observed two firearms inside Betton's apartment and two security cameras at the front door. The briefing materials also stated Betton's criminal history, which included convictions for marijuana trafficking in 2003, cocaine trafficking in 2007, a prior arrest for aggravated robbery in 2008, and an outstanding arrest warrant for a probation violation in Ohio.

         About 3 p.m. on the day of the search, eleven law enforcement officers in three unmarked cars arrived at Betton's home. Although the cars' emergency lights were activated, the sirens were not. The shades on the front windows of the home were drawn, blocking any view through the windows. The agents were wearing a variety of plain clothes and bullet-proof vests. Officer Belue wore a baseball cap, and another agent wore a black cloth mask obscuring the lower ...

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