In my series on policing in South Carolina last year, I noted the story of Julian Betton, a Myrtle Beach man who was raided by a multi-jurisdictional drug task force after allegedly making two $50 pot sales to a friend who, unbeknownst to him, also happened to be a police informant. There were some new developments in the case this week. But first, some background:
After forcing Betton’s door down with a battering ram, members of the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit fired at least 57 bullets at the then-31-year-old Betton, hitting him nine times. A summary of Betton’s injuries:
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.
The police claimed that they knocked and announced themselves several times before entering Betton’s home. Only after those knocks and announcements did they force down his door. At that point, they said, Betton fired a handgun at them, giving them no choice but to empty their guns into him.
That story was always suspicious. Betton was at worst a small-time pot dealer. It just wouldn’t make much sense for him to knowingly fire a handgun at a raid team of a dozen cops. Even if he were the sort willing to kill a law enforcement officer over some pot, he was massively out-armed and out-manned.
And as it turns out, Betton didn’t fire on them. Ballistics tests later showed that his gun had never been fired. The cops then altered their story to say that Betton merely pointed his gun at them.
That still didn’t make much sense. The police claimed he did this after they made repeated knocks and announcements, and that they were wearing uniforms clearly indicating that they were law enforcement. This again would have had Betton knowingly taking on a well-armed, well-equipped tactical team with a handgun over a comparatively small amount of pot — but this time only pointing the gun at them. Also suspicious: The task force members gave strikingly similar, almost word-for-word accounts of the raid. The police also confronted one of Betton’s neighbor’s as they approached the house. That neighbor would later say he had no idea the raid team was law enforcement, and he thought he was being robbed. If the neighbor didn’t know the raid team were police officers, it’s hard to see how Betton should have.
And as it turns out, much of the rest of the raid team’s story was false, too. The officers were apparently unaware of the fact that Betton had a security camera. Footage of the first moments of the raid shows that the first officers into the house had no insignia on their clothes indicating they were law enforcement. The first officers are wearing dark tops with light slacks. One is wearing a backward baseball cap, another a balaclava hood. Moreover, the video clearly shows that no officer knocked on Betton’s door before the battering ram smashed it open. The video has no sound, so it’s difficult to say if the police announced themselves. But they did not have a no-knock warrant, which means they were obligated to knock, announce themselves and wait a sufficient period of time before entering. The courts haven’t said exactly how long police are required to wait, but it’s generally thought to be at least 10 seconds. The cops who raided Betton didn’t knock. And if they announced, it was within just a few seconds of smashing down his door, and then shooting him.
In short, even if Betton did point a gun at the raiding officers, given that they didn’t properly announced themselves, he would have been legally permitted to do so. But given that the police lied about him firing the gun, their uniforms, and knocking and announcing, it’s difficult to put much faith in their claims that he pointed the gun at them.
Curiously, several members of the raid team were wearing body cameras. Oddly, all of the officers who had body cameras activated them at the same time — not before the raid began, but after Betton had been shot.
This week, Betton pleaded guilty to one count of marijuana distribution and another charge of possession with intent to distribute. All of the gun charges against him were dropped. That seems significant. Generally, prosecutors don’t tread lightly on people accused of assaulting or pointing guns at police officers. For the marijuana charges, Betton was sentenced to five years in prison for each count, which the judge suspended.
All of the officers involved in the raid on Julian Betton were later cleared by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), the state police agency that investigates shootings and allegations of misconduct by police officers. My series last year looked at a number of cases in which SLED investigations of officer-involved shootings were at best sloppy, and at worst reeked of cops covering for other cops. The SLED report of the Betton raid made only cursory mention of Betton’s surveillance footage. It doesn’t mention that the footage pretty clearly contradicts the officers’ account of what happened. The officers were never punished for their false claims about Betton firing his gun, the false claims about their uniforms, or their failure to knock and announce before battering down Betton’s door, which was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.
Betton’s lawsuit against the task force is still pending. Recently, the prominent Raleigh attorney Bradley Bannon joined Betton’s legal team after reading about his story here at The Watch. But even if he should win, the officers will likely be indemnified by the cities and counties that employ them.
Julian Betton’s offense was to sell $100 worth of pot to a friend. For that, South Carolina police battered down his door, fired 57 shots at him and hit him nine times, leaving him paralyzed and without the use of several major body organs. The cops then lied about the circumstances of the raid to make it seem as if Betton deserved every bullet. When Betton awoke from a coma, his leg was shackled to the hospital bed. Prosecutors then charged him with several felonies — enough of them to put him in prison for the rest of his life, should he survive his injuries. For those two sales of pot totaling $100, Betton will not only be saddled with paralysis and debilitating injury, he’ll also have a felony record. The cops who broke down his door, filled him with bullets and then lied about what had happened will suffer no punishment at all.