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Week 42 (2019)

Week of November 4, 2019 through November 8, 2019

United States v. Allred (Wilkinson 11/7/19): The Fourth Circuit held that causing bodily injury to a witness constitutes a predicate conviction for a defendant found guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(1). The Court reversed the District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina’s grant of defendant’s motion for relief and subsequent resentencing. Full Opinion

United States v. Jones (Keenan 11/6/19): The Fourth Circuit held that making threats against police officers generally, as well as individualized threats against named officers was a substantial basis to conclude that a defendant intended to retaliate against a branch or level of government for government conduct. The Court affirmed the District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence. Full Opinion

Trustgard Insurance Company v. Collins (Richardson 11/5/19): The Fourth Circuit held that federal courts lack jurisdiction under the Declaratory Judgment Act to resolve an insurer’s responsibility because allowing such jurisdiction would lead to confusion and unnecessary entanglement with the related state-court lawsuit. The Court vacated and remanded the District Court for the District of South Carolina’s issuance of a declaratory judgment in favor of the insurer. Full Opinion

United States v. Taylor (Niemeyer 11/5/18): The Fourth Circuit held that a police officer’s falsification of timekeeping to increase his or her overtime pay was sufficient evidence for the ‘wire transmission’ predicate of the RICO Act. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the District Court for the District of Maryland’s judgments of conviction. Full Opinion

Highlight Case

Betton v. Belue (Keenan 11/5/19): The Fourth Circuit held that a suspect’s mere possession of a firearm, standing alone, does not justify an officer’s use of deadly force. Additionally, to justify the use of deadly force, the officer’s reasonable assessment of the situation must show probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others. 

On April 15, 2015, a team of plain-clothed police officers executed a search warrant, which authorized a search of the Plaintiff’s dwelling for drugs and other illegal substances. Armed with assault style rifles, the officers used a battering ram to enter the Plaintiff’s dwelling. The Plaintiff heard the officers enter and pulled a handgun from his waistband, holding the gun near his hip. The officers fired a total of 29 shots at the Plaintiff, striking him nine different times. As a result of his gunshot wounds, the Plaintiff was permanently paralyzed. 

Officer Belue—the Defendant—originally maintained that the Plaintiff first fired his weapon at the scene; however, the Defendant recanted this claim after a later investigation revealed that the Plaintiff never discharged his handgun during the sequence of events. Instead, the Defendant claimed that the Plaintiff had pointed his weapon at the officers. The Plaintiff filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Defendant; his claims alleged Fourth Amendment violations based on unlawful entry and the use of excessive force. The Defendant moved for summary judgment, claiming qualified immunity but only for the use of excessive force claim. The district court denied his motion. 

The Fourth Circuit’s analysis centered on whether there was genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Plaintiff pointed his firearm at the officers before the officers fired upon him. The Court reasoned based on its earlier decision in Cooper v. Sheehan, 735 F.3d 153, 159 (4th Cir. 2013), which it found determinative in the current case. The Court explained that officers do not possess an unfettered authority to shoot a suspect based on that suspect merely possessing a firearm. Rather, to justify the use of deadly force, an officer must make a reasonable assessment that he, or another, is threatened with the weapon. 

The Court further reasoned that in this case, the officers did not identify themselves as members of law enforcement and shot the defendant while he was holding his firearm down near his hip. Further, because the officers did not knock and announce their presence before entering the dwelling, the Plaintiff could not have known that members of law enforcement had entered his home. Finally, neither the Defendant nor any of the other officers issued any commands upon entering the Plaintiff’s residence. Assuming the officers did identify themselves, the Defendant may have reasonably believed that the Plaintiff holding a firearm posed a deadly threat to the officers. 

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court for the District of South Carolina’s denial of the Defendant’s motion for summary judgment. 

Full Opinion

Carl Petkoff