The Kansas Supreme Court rules that police can be liable when their actions injure a bystander
Charges can proceed against an officer who injured an innocent bystander while defending themself
TOPEKA, Kansas — The Kansas Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision Friday that shielded a Wichita police officer from criminal charges when he shot at a dog and a young girl was injured.
Former Wichita police officer Dexter Betts was responding to a domestic disturbance call when a dog lunged at him, his attorneys say. Betts shot at the dog, but missed. Bullet fragments hit someone behind the animal.
Betts was charged with reckless aggravated battery in 2018, but prosecution was blocked because a court ruled he qualified for statutory immunity — a provision in state law that protects officers from prosecution for doing their jobs.
The Kansas Supreme Court disagreed, and in an opinion by Justice Dan Biles sent the case back to a trial court.
“We hold (state statute) does not extend its immunity to a defendant's reckless acts while engaged in self-defense that result in unintended injury to an innocent bystander as alleged here,” the opinion said.
Prosecutors argued a reasonable person would not have fired at the dog, so self-defense can’t be argued if someone is reckless and self-defense immunity does not apply to animals.
Matt Maloney, an attorney representing the state, said during oral arguments in February that the dog posed no risk to Betts. The animal was around 30-35 pounds, Betts had protective equipment on and his partner was nearby.
“He could have tried to hit the dog. He could have tried to grab the dog, to push it to the ground. … Instead, he went with the nuclear option,” he told the Kansas Supreme Court Feb. 3 during oral arguments.
Maloney questioned whether Betts’ defense would work for a pizza delivery person who shoots at a dog while dropping off food.
Jess Hoeme, who was defending Betts, said the officer couldn’t know how dangerous the dog was and Betts was only following his training. The Wichita Police Department "does shoot dogs pretty regularly," the Supreme Court opinion said.
The decision by the Supreme Court does not render a guilty or not guilty verdict. Instead, it opens up future prosecution against Betts — or any other officer who hurts innocent bystanders and claims self-defense. The opinion said the case can move forward once the state shows the use of deadly force was reckless.
Qualified immunity has been a heated topic in Kansas, and picked up steam after the death of Cedric Lofton. Lofton died in Sedgwick County’s juvenile intake center. Officers claimed Lofton was combative and they restrained him. He died while restrained.
“Should not have happened, but these folks are protected by Kansas law,” said Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett when he declined to charge those involved. “Same as anyone else would be, and that’s where I’m at.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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