John A. Steakely

Attorney John Steakley is a 1996 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law. He began his career as the Special Prosecutor for Drug Crimes for a multi-county, multi-agency drug task force in Tennessee, where he represented the State of Tennessee in thousands of felony and misdemeanor cases in a 5-county judicial district.

Fourth Circuit Denies Immunity For SWAT Officers

Fourth Circuit Denies Immunity For SWAT Officers

This is interesting.  The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court's ruling that the police involved in a S.W.A.T. raid are not immune, meaning they can be sued personally.   Typically, when you try to sue an officer, you sue them as an officer of the police force, not as an individual person.  Individually, police officers are generally considered immune because of a doctrine called "qualified immunity."  If by slim chance you win your suit, it isn't the officer who pays you.  It's the city or county that has the police force.

Not so in this case: 

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.

This isn't the first time I've pointed out that Wal-Mart will look at your photos and call the police on you.  I think it's pretty safe to say that people shouldn't take their photos to Wal-Mart.  

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.

Who empowered Wal-Mart to decide what is and isn't child pornography?

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.

I'm not sure how turning in "seeming child pornography" to Wal-Mart has anything to do with this guy's house. What is the evidence that the "seeming child pornograpny" was produced in the house or that there is any other such material in the house?

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.

Also, how does having a CC permit indicate that the person has a gun and that the gun is in the house and that the person with the gun in the house will use it against officers? It doesn't. This is just anti-gun-owner bias. Owning a gun and having a firearm in your home doesn't mean the 4th Amendment no longer applies to you.  Apparently in this jurisdiction, not only does exercising your 2nd Amendment rights sacrifice your 4th Amendment rights, but that determination is made by a "SORT Team leader."  

Did anyone consider just walking up to this door, knocking, and saying "Hi. We have a search warrant.  Step aside."  That's all they needed to do.

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.

It's not a violent raid, it's a "dynamic entry."  And cops don't throw people down.  They "assist them to the pavement."

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.

And the child pornography?  None. 

Mr. Bellotte, it turns out, had spent that night in his hunting cabin in Hampshire County, West Virginia. The next morning, when his wife told him what happened, he went to see Detective Edwards at the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. He gave a recorded statement and later produced a passport and birth certificate showing that the female in the photo was not a child, but in fact a 35-year-old woman who lived in the Philippines. Thus Mr. Bellotte did not in fact possess any child pornography, and no charges were ever filed against him.

Why did he have a photo of a 35-year-old woman from the Philippines?  It's irrelevant, because it isn't a crime and it certainly didn't justify a botched, no-knock raid of his home.  The danger that evidence will be suppressed doesn't discourage sloppy police work.  The danger of getting shot by a homeowner doesn't discourage sloppy police work.  But the danger that sloppy police work will lead to an officer getting sued personally may encourage officers to think twice before raiding someone's home with no reason.

Full story here.



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