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Fourth Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity for Botched SWAT Raid

The PIGS fuck up again. Duh? Article by Radley Balko.

It wasn’t a drug raid. But the details are fun. From the opinion:

On May 31, 2007, Sam Bellotte printed some photographs from a memory card at a self-service station in a Winchester, Virginia Wal-Mart. When he went to pay for the prints, a clerk insisted on inspecting the photos. Mr. Bellotte admitted that some contained nudity and surrendered them, then made other purchases and left the store.

The Wal-Mart employees charged with discarding the photos noticed one depicting male genitalia seemingly next to a child’s face. Concerned that the photograph was child pornography, the employees notified the Frederick County police. An investigation of the surveillance camera footage and credit card receipts showed that Mr. Bellotte, a resident of Jefferson County, West Virginia, had printed the photo in question. A Frederick County police officer placed the photo in a file container and notified the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, which then took responsibility for the investigation. After reviewing the file, verifying Mr. Bellotte’s address, and learning that both Mr. and Mrs. Bellotte held concealed carry permits, Detective Tracy Edwards sought a search warrant for the Bellotte residence. Around 9:00 that evening, the magistrate reviewed the application and signed the warrant.

In order to execute the warrant, Detective Edwards sought and received approval from the ranking Jefferson County law enforcement officer for the assistance of the Jefferson County Special Operations Team (“SORT Team”). The SORT Team leaders decided that their involvement was justified due to the possibility of a violent reaction from Mr. Bellotte and the concealed carry permits held by both Mr. and Mrs. Bellotte. After the three SORT squads were assembled and briefed, they arrived at the Bellotte residence around 10:15 p.m.

The three squads took positions around the house, wearing tactical vests and helmets and armed with flashlight-equipped.45 caliber Sig Sauer pistols and “hooligan” pry bars for a possible forced entry. Then, the Bellottes claim, the SORT squads opened the unlocked front and rear doors without knocking or announcing their presence. They immediately executed a dynamic entry—a technique that the SORT Team had recently been trained in—by which all squads simultaneously rushed into the home from multiple entry points. After the SORT squads were inside the house, they repeatedly identified themselves as law enforcement officers executing a search warrant.

The first member of the family to encounter the SORT Team was E.B., the Bellottes’ teenage son. When the officers found him upstairs walking out of his bedroom and talking on a cell phone, they subdued and handcuffed him. E.B. asserts that the officers also poked a gun at the back of his head. In another bedroom, the team found C.B., the Bellottes’ young daughter, and led her downstairs unhandcuffed.

When the SORT Team came to the parents’ bedroom, Tametta Bellotte raced out of bed and ran screaming toward the closet. When she reached for a gun bag, the officers forced her to the ground and handcuffed her. Later, when the house was secured, the SORT Team allowed Mrs. Bellotte to get fully dressed under the supervision of a female officer. The search of the Bellotte residence concluded shortly before midnight.

Sam Bellotte was actually on a hunting trip at the time. When he learned of the raid on his family, the same man police thought was so dangerous that they had to send a SWAT team to his home late at night walked into the police station, explained the situation, and provided documentation that the person depicted in the photo was a 35-year-old Filipino woman.

A couple other points here. First, I still wonder why gun rights groups like the NRA aren’t more disturbed by the ubiquitous use of SWAT teams. Here, the fact that the Bellotte’s were legal, registered gun owners was used as justification for the violent, volatile entry into their home. It isn’t the first time this has happened. You’d think that’s something that might concern Second Amendment acitivists.

Second, the police were right. Tametta Bellotte did immediately go for her gun when the SWAT team entered. But not because she’s a cop-killing, child pornographizing criminal. As it turns out, she was innocent. She went for her gun because she thought her life is in danger.

That said, it’s good to see the Fourth Circuit decline qualified immunity here. And it would be nice to see federal courts allow more liability for botched raids.

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