In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled in Hudson v. Michigan that evidence seized during raids in which police violate the “knock and announce” requirement is not subject to the exclusionary rule. That rule says that evidence seized during a search that violates the Fourth Amendment can’t be used against a suspect at trial. It’s meant to deter illegal searches. Writing for a 5-to-4 majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that although the knock-and-announce rule is indeed part of the Fourth Amendment, excluding evidence from raids in which police failed to abide by it was too extreme of a remedy for such a minor violation. Instead, Scalia argued that the “new professionalism” in police departments around the country as well as a trend toward more internal discipline at police agencies were sufficient to deter police from violating the requirement.
That was 12 years ago. I’d submit that there’s growing pile of evidence (and a growing pile of bodies) showing that Scalia was wrong. And there’s no better example than South Carolina’s 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit (DEU).
Here at The Watch, we’ve been following the case of Julian Betton, whose Myrtle Beach, S.C., residence was raided by the DEU in 2015. The evidence for the raid on Betton came from a confidential informant, who claimed to have bought pot from him on two occasions for a total of $100. On April 16, 2015, the task force battered Betton’s door open with a ram, then almost immediately opened fire, releasing at least 29 bullets, nine of which hit Betton. One bullet pierced a back wall in the building, sped across a nearby basketball court and landed in the wall of another house. (This was a multi-family building.)
An expert hired by Betton’s legal team estimates that over the course of his lifetime, his medical bills will run between $6 million and $17 million. Here’s a summary of Betton’s injuries from a previous post:
He ended up losing his gallbladder and parts of his bowel, colon and rectum. The bullets also damaged his liver, small intestine and pancreas. His lung partially collapsed. His left leg was broken. One of his vertebrae was partially destroyed; two others were fractured. He’ll never walk again or be able to have kids of his own. He’ll also need to use a colostomy bag for the rest of his life.
Several members of the task force at first insisted that Betton fired a handgun at them. When ballistics testing revealed that Betton’s gun hadn’t been fired recently, they next claimed that he had merely pointed his handgun at them. Without video, that accusation is harder to prove one way or the other and, conveniently, the task force members who were wearing body cameras failed to activate them until after the shooting had stopped. But the criminal charge against Betton associated with that accusation has since been dropped.
Every member of the task force but one also said that the officers knocked and announced before entering Betton’s home. Some said they even waited after announcing. They also claimed to be wearing clothing that clearly identified them as police officers.
As it turns out, Betton had a security camera on his front porch. These 11 seconds of footage from that camera show that no member of the task force knocked on Betton’s door.
The video lacks audio, but both the Myrtle Beach police chief and a federal magistrate have since concluded that the video also strongly suggests there was no announcement. None of the officers’ lips appear to be moving, and it all happens very quickly. At best, they announced themselves simultaneously or nearly simultaneously, with the battering ram hitting the door.
That’s consistent with testimony from a neighbor who said she did hear someone yell “police,” but at about the same time she heard the ram hit the door. Another neighbor who was on the sidewalk outside Betton’s home was knocked down and temporarily detained by the task force as the raid commenced. He has said that he heard no announcement, and that he at first had no idea that armed men who knocked him down were police officers.
The task force did not have a no-knock warrant for Betton’s home. They had only a knock-and-announce warrant. Under federal law, they were required to knock, announce themselves and wait a reasonable time for someone to answer the door. By any interpretation of the video, they violated that rule.
Betton has sued the members of the task force, along with the jurisdictions that the task force serves. In March, all of the cities and counties associated with the DEU except for the city of Myrtle Beach settled with Betton for a total of $2.75 million. His lawsuit against Myrtle Beach — and Myrtle Beach police officer Dave Belue, who served on the task force — continues.
Betton’s claim against the city is what’s known as a Monell claim. This sort of lawsuit is extremely difficult to win. Most are thrown out before they ever get in front of a jury. To win, Betton needs to demonstrate that the city — and, in this case, the drug task force that it oversees — has shown a pattern and practice of policies, (lack of) discipline or a general culture that would foreseeably result in constitutional violations.
But the discovery process for Betton’s lawsuit has uncovered damning new information about the raid, the task force and how the task force operates. And just last week, a federal magistrate issued a damning report, along with her recommendation that the lawsuit move forward.