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Court removes qualified immunity for Kansas officer charged with injuring a girl while shooting at aggressive dog

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Source: Wichita Police Department Facebook


Chance Swaim

The Wichita Eagle

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled unanimously Friday that a former Wichita police officer will face felony charges in a shooting that wounded a 9-year-old girl, setting a new precedent that allows officers to be held criminally liable for injuring innocent bystanders — even if they say they were acting in self defense. Former officer Dexter Betts fired two gunshots at a family dog while securing the interior of a Wichita home during a domestic violence investigation in December 2017. Betts missed both times, but one of the bullets ricocheted off the concrete floor and hit the girl — one of three children in the room at the time — above her eye and in her foot.

“(Betts) argued state law immunizes his use of deadly force in self-defense — even if he acted recklessly and regardless of who got hurt,” the Supreme Court opinion says. “The district court agreed and dismissed the case. When the State appealed, a Court of Appeals panel affirmed. On review, we reverse the grant of statutory immunity and remand the case to the district court for further proceedings.”

The decision overturns rulings by Sedgwick County Judge Kevin O’Connor and the Kansas Court of Appeals that had granted the officer immunity from criminal prosecution or a lawsuit by the girl’s family because he had fired in self-defense.

The Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Dan Biles, establishes limits on self-defense law for Kansas police officers, who have been granted nearly unlimited immunity from prosecution as long as they claim they acted in self defense.

The 20-page decision says “statutory immunity is confined to circumstances when the use of such force is against a person or thing reasonably believed to be an aggressor.”

“The statute does not extend immunity for reckless acts resulting in unintended injury to innocent bystanders while the defendant engaged in self-defense with a perceived aggressor,” the unanimous decision, written by Justice Dan Biles reads.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett filed charges against Betts in March 2018. Betts is the first Wichita police officer charged in an on-duty shooting in more than two decades.

Bennett praised he decision for weighing in on the state’s “stand your ground” law, which he has criticized in the past for limiting charges he can file in cases where someone claims self defense.

“After a lengthy analysis, the Court held there is no ‘blanket shield for reckless conduct injuring an innocent bystander who was not reasonably perceived as an attacker,'” Bennett said in a written statement. “This settled a question that had been unsettled since the passage of the ‘stand your ground’/ self-defense immunity law in Kansas.”

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