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Opinion A South Carolina anti-drug police unit admitted it conducts illegal no-knock raids


Correction: This post originally stated that the report and recommendation in Betton v. Knowles was written by Robin Blume. It was written by Judge Kayamni West, U.S. Magistrate for the U.S. District Court of South Carolina. Blume is the Clerk of Court for the same court.

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.

Footage taken from security camera outside Julian Betton’s door on April 16, 2015. (Video: Court filings in the case Betton v. Knowles)

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.

The Raid

All of the officers involved with the raid wrote up initial reports, then gave interviews with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), the state police agency that investigates all police-involved shootings. (I’ll have more on SLED’s role in all of this soon.) Several of the officers were also deposed by Betton’s attorneys for his lawsuit. Their accounts of the raid during each of these phases of the investigation include falsehoods and contradictions. Here’s officer Frank Waddell of the Coastal Carolina Police Departmentfrom his interview with SLED:

“Agent Belue pulled open the screen/storm door to expose the primary entrance door. Another agent knocked and all agents, including myself, began to yell ‘Police Search Warrant’ prior to making entry.”

This short statement contains at least two and perhaps three falsehoods. No agent from the task force knocked. At most a couple of agents announced themselves, but by all accounts it was simultaneous with entering Betton’s home, not before. And it’s extremely doubtful that “all” agents announced even simultaneously with entry, given that the neighbor detained on the sidewalk at the time didn’t hear any of them. Waddell also told SLED that he saw Betton “approaching them firing his weapon in the Agents’ direction.” This never happened.

Here’s officer Dean Bishop, deputy commander of the DEU, again from an interview SLED:

“At this time, I heard the entry team knock on the door of apartment #2 and yell ‘Police! Search warrant!’ A few seconds later the breaching ram hit the door of the apartment.”

This statement contains two falsehoods. There was no knock, so Bishop couldn’t possibly have heard one. And if you watch the surveillance video, there simply wasn’t enough time for a knock, an announcement and for “a few seconds” to pass before the battering ram hit the door.

Here’s officer Chad Guess, who planned the raid and held the battering ram:

“At this point, I approached the front door, in which we had already knocked and announced ‘police search warrant’ with no response, and hit it with a ram. I yelled ‘police search warrant’ as the door opened up.”

Later, Guess said that he was the one who knocked and announced. Guess’s statement implies that even more time passes before entry than Bishop’s does. He claims that not only had other agents already knocked and announced by the time he got to the door, but also that he then knocked and announced himself, after which sufficient time passed for him to notice that there had been no response. Only then did he use the battering ram. Per the video, none of these things happened. (Officers Christopher Dennis of the Horry County sheriff’s office and Jason Brummett of the Hory County police department also each falsely claimed to have seen and heard Guess knock and announce.)

And here’s officer Belue in his SLED interview:

“I pulled the screen door open and announced in a loud voice ‘police, search warrant.’ The rest of the team had also made their way onto the porch and Agent Guess approached the front door. As Guess approached the wood door he knocked and announced again ‘police, search warrant.’ Upon no answer at the door force was utilized to gain entry into the apartment.”

According to the video, it’s highly unlikely that Belue announced “police, search warrant” at the time he claims. Neither neighbor heard it. And Belue’s own police chief has conceded that Belue’s lips do not appear to be moving in the video. It’s also clear from the video that Guess never knocked, it’s unlikely that he announced, and it would have been impossible for him to have knocked, announced and waited for an answer between the time Belue opened the screen and Guess smacked the door with the ram.

These are not quibbles over minutiae. The details in dispute here are critical to determining whether the officers were legally permitted to force their way into Betton’s home. If they did follow the knock-and-announce rule, the raid was legal. If they didn’t, they entered Betton’s home illegally. At that point, whether or not Betton brandished a weapon is moot: He would have the right to defend his home. Either way, if the entry itself was illegal, then the barrage of bullets the officers subsequently sent at him was wholly unjustified.

The officers’ initial police reports are also rife with falsehoods. Belue’s report says that he “pulled the screen open and announced in a loud voice, ‘police, search warrant.’ ” He adds, “As Guess approached the wood door he knocked and announced again ‘police, search warrant.’ Upon no answer at the door, force was used to gain entry into the apartment.” Officer Dean Bishop claimed to hear a knock, an announcement and the battering ram “a few seconds later.” Officer Austin Cox, a Myrtle Beach cop who is not part of the DEU but was recruited to guard the perimeter of the house, said he heard “a small caliber gunshot being fired and then a series of louder gunshots being fired.” That’s remarkably consistent with the other officers’ initial claims that they only opened fire after Betton fired his handgun at them. It’s more than a bit suspicious that Cox would confirm his fellow police officers’ story — a narrative that exonerates them, but one that we know isn’t true.

Multiple officers on the task force also told SLED that they wore clothing that clearly indicated they were police. But an expert hired by Betton’s defense team — a former SWAT officer with 35 years of experience in law enforcement — testified that if the task force had raided his home, he’d have had no idea that they were police. The officers are permitted to wear what they like on raids, and often mix official gear with personal items, and there’s no uniformity. In the video, only one officer is wearing anything with a visible police insignia: Guess, who, as the battering ram operator, was one of the last to enter the apartment.

Officers Dennis, Waddell and Belue were the first to enter. All had the word “police” somewhere on their clothing, but it was either in small, dark lettering, or partially obscured. It was not at all conspicuous, especially to someone on the receiving end of a violent raid. Waddell wore a mask that partially obscured the word. Here’s what Belue was wearing:

The Task Force

The city of Myrtle Beach recently moved to have Betton’s lawsuit dismissed on summary judgment. Last week, federal magistrate Kayamni West issued her report and recommendation. West recommended that Betton’s lawsuit proceed on both his Monell claim and his individual claims against Belue. She found that members of the task force repeatedly made statements that were provably false, both in their reports and to SLED investigators. And she also found that the task force in general seems to be routinely and brazenly violating the Fourth Amendment rights of South Carolinians.

Perhaps the most disturbing finding is that several members of the task force either aren’t aware of the knock-and-announce requirement or are badly mistaken about what it requires. The rule emanates from the Castle Doctrine, a centuries-old principle from English Common Law stating that one’s home is one’s castle — a place of peace and tranquility — and that government agents can only violate that peace and tranquility under limited circumstances, and even then only after knocking, announcing themselves and their purpose, and giving the occupants time to answer the door to avoid destruction of their property and violence to their person. The U.S. Supreme Court has diluted the principle over the years, thanks mostly to the drug war, but still holds that unless police specifically obtain a no-knock warrant, they are required to knock, announce themselves, then wait a reasonable period of time before forcibly entering a private residence. There are some exceptions, known as exigent circumstances, such as if police hear someone flushing drugs, loading a gun or observe other activity that suggests the destruction of evidence or the possibility of bodily harm to the police. But absent those, they must knock, announce and wait before entering.

It seems clear from the testimony in depositions that the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit doesn’t know any of this. Officer Christopher Dennis, for example, said that the “reasonable” waiting period for someone to answer the door begins the moment police arrive on the scene, not after they knock and announce themselves. This is false. Officer Chad Guess — who, remember, planned the Betton raid — said in a deposition that it’s “not the law to knock and announce. You know, it’s just not. It’s the officer’s discretion, each dictate determines itself.” This, again, is wrong. Officer Belue said under oath that he had no idea how long officers are supposed to wait before forcing entry, and that no one had trained him on the matter.

Not surprisingly, the task force routinely failed to assign someone the task of knocking and announcing when serving a drug warrant. Also unsurprisingly, usually no one bothered to do it. Mark McIntyre, a task force officer who was present on the Betton raid, said in a deposition that the DEU “almost always forcibly entered without knocking and announcing, or simultaneously with announcing.” McIntyre, who had served on a similar team in North Carolina, recently resigned from the DEU. In a remarkable affidavit for Betton’s lawsuit, McIntyre said that he believed Betton could have easily been apprehended outside his home. It was well known to the DEU that Betton walked to a nearby convenience store nearly every day. He could have been arrested then. McIntyre added that he is retiring from the task force because its tactics “put the participating officers and nearby civilians at greater risk.”

Or perhaps DEU officers do know the requirement and don’t care. Some of the same task force officers now claiming ignorance of the knock-and-announce requirement also knew exactly what to write in their reports and say in their statements to SLED investigators to give the impression that they had complied with it. They knew to state not only that they had knocked and announced, but also that they had waited after doing so. (Although even their earlier statements suggest they aren’t familiar with court rulings on what constitutes a “reasonable” period to wait.)

Belue and the city of Myrtle Beach recently changed Belue’s story. Once the other jurisdictions settled with Betton, Belue argued that he shouldn’t be held liable because it was Guess who violated the knock-and-announce rule. Once Guess had hit the door with the battering ram before the officers had satisfied the knock-and-announce rule, Belue said in court filings, the raid was compromised. That created an exigent circumstance for a no-knock entry — Belue had no choice but to enter because the suspect was aware that police were outside.

That’s a pretty brazen — and convenient — defense. It’s essentially stating that once a fellow officer violated Betton’s rights, Belue had no choice but to violate them as well. And since Guess’s police department has already settled with Betton, putting all of the fault on Guess gets Belue and Myrtle Beach off the hook without subjecting the other officers to more liability — and without risk of them objecting. It’s also a blatantly dishonest defense: As mentioned earlier, Belue’s previous statements directly contradict his new narrative — he had previously explicitly said that Guess had knocked and announced.

Somehow, it gets worse. As it turns out, the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit doesn’t have an official policy on how to serve search warrants. The DEU manual has policies on nearly every other aspect of narcotics policing, but not for serving search warrants.  Warrant service is arguably the most dangerous and perilous part of drug policing. Officers are breaking into private homes with a battering ram, then storming those homes with guns. These raids are extraordinarily volatile and leave only a thin margin for error.

According to a profile by local NBC affiliate WMBF, the DEU conducts about 150 such raids each year. Given that DEU agents testified that (a) nearly all of those raids were done without a proper knock and announcement, and (b) they hadn’t bothered to obtain a no-knock warrant in almost any of them (officer Dean Baker said they obtained such a warrant in “less than 1 percent, 2 percent” of their raids), it’s fair to say that the DEU has both been routinely violating South Carolinians’ Fourth Amendment rights and has carelessly subjected them to violence, along with unnecessary risks of injury and death.

But you could also argue that the DEU isn’t particularly concerned about the safety and rights of the community it serves. Here, for example, is the emblem the task force used on the cover of its “operational plan” for the Betton raid.

What happened to Julian Betton is an entirely predictable product of the failures, culture and mindset of the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit. And yet to date, state officials won’t even concede that this was a bad outcome, much less do anything to prevent it from happening again. Citing the SLED investigation, South Carolina solicitor Kevin Bracket cleared the officers of any wrongdoing within just a few months. In the three years since the raid, no officer involved has been disciplined, even internally. Nor has any officer has been asked to undergo additional training. No policies have been changed. The DEU never bothered with its own investigation, or even an after-action examination to determine what went wrong.

This, of course, is just one police unit in one state. But both before Hudson and in the 12 years since, we’ve seen similar stories across the country of drug task forces (particularly multi-jurisdictional ones) seemingly operating without much oversight or scrutiny. In Hudson, the Scalia-led majority determined that a knock-and-announce violation was a minor affront to the Fourth Amendment. Betton’s injuries would certainly suggest otherwise, as would the multitude of injuries and deaths we’ve documented on this site that resulted from other forced-entry raids.

The majority in Hudson also ruled that internal discipline, police professionalism and civil liability were sufficient to ensure that police officers follow the knock-and-announce rule. When Bill Knowles, the commander of the DEU, was asked in a deposition why none of his officers were disciplined after the Betton raid, he replied, “They didn’t do anything wrong.”