Court: Former Wichita officer can be prosecuted for shooting that injured 9-year-old girl
WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE/AP) - The Kansas Supreme Court has reversed a Sedgwick County court order granting immunity to a former Wichita police officer who injured a girl during a shooting incident in 2017.
Dexter Betts' employment with the Wichita Police Department was terminated in January 2018. The incident happened on December 30.
Officers responded to the report of a domestic disturbance and suicidal person at a home near 13th and Hillside. Police had said officers were told a 33-year-old man in the home had held a gun in his mouth and choked a dog.
An attorney for the girl's family said in 2018 that by the time police arrived, the situation has been resolved and the couple was standing outside, with no weapon and ready to talk to police.
"While the officers were retrieving the gun, a mid-sized mixed breed dog charged at one of the officers," police said in news release after the incident. "The officer pulled his service weapon and shot at the dog, missing it."
The bullet struck the floor and broke into fragments, one of them ricocheting and striking a 9-year-old girl in the forehead just above her right eye. She was hospitalized and released later that evening.
Betts argued that he acted in self defense. A judge dismissed the case before trial, and the Kansas Court of Appeals upheld that decision. But Supreme Court Justice Dan Biles, writing for a unanimous state Supreme Court, said Kansas law grants immunity from prosecution for force used specifically against an attacker and doesn’t mention bystanders.
“If the Legislature wishes to extend self-defense immunity when an innocent bystander is hurt, it can do so,” Biles wrote. “In the meantime, we find nothing in the statutes providing a blanket shield for reckless conduct injuring an innocent bystander who was not reasonably perceived as an attacker.”
Jess Hoeme, Betts’ attorney, said he believes Betts will be acquitted at trial, but expressed concern that the ruling could hinder law enforcement and endanger officers.
“Law enforcement officers have a very, very difficult job to do,” Hoeme said. “When officers begin to hesitate or when they start to second-guess their own actions like that, law enforcement officers are going to get killed.”
Hoeme said the ruling is “unfortunate” because Betts didn’t intend to hurt any person while shooting and the bullets fragmented.
But prosecutors have argued that Betts acted recklessly in shooting at the dog with the girl nearby. A conviction on a reckless aggravated battery charge for a first-time offender carries a presumed sentence of 18 months’ probation.
“This settled a question that had been unsettled since the passage of the `stand your ground″/ self-defense immunity law in Kansas,” Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said of Friday’s ruling, adding it was a “difficult legal question.”
Below is the Supreme Court's full decision released Friday:
The Supreme Court reversed the Sedgwick County District Court's grant of statutory immunity and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. While securing the interior of a family home during a domestic violence investigation, Betts, a Wichita police officer, fired two gunshots in quick succession at a fast-approaching dog he thought was attacking him. He missed, and bullet fragments struck a young girl sitting nearby. The State charged Betts with reckless aggravated battery for injuring the girl. Betts moved to dismiss the charge before trial. He argued state law immunizes his use of deadly force in self-defense, even if he acted recklessly and regardless of who got hurt. The district court agreed with him and dismissed the case. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
In a unanimous decision written by Justice Dan Biles, the Court reversed the lower courts' decisions. In doing so, the Court recognized Betts' case presented facts that it has not considered before. The Court noted that in the typical self-defense immunity case, the State charges a defendant with an intentional crime committed against a person claimed to be the aggressor. But here, the crime charged involved an innocent bystander, the little girl, who was unintentionally injured during Betts' allegedly reckless conduct while engaging in self-defense.
Relying on the plain language of the immunity statute, K.S.A. 2021 Supp. 21-5231(a), and the self-defense statute, K.S.A. 2021 Supp. 21-5222, the Court held the statutory grant of immunity is confined to the use of force, or deadly force, against a person or thing reasonably believed to be an aggressor. The Court, therefore, concluded our immunity statute does not extend its immunity to a defendant's reckless act while engaging in self-defense that results in unintended injury to an innocent bystander.
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett released the following statement after the Supreme Court's ruling:
The question before the court was whether a person acting in self-defense is immune from prosecution under the “stand-your-ground”/self-defense immunity statute in Kansas when they recklessly hurt another, innocent bystander in the process of defending themselves from the first aggressor?
The Supreme Court acknowledged that existing case law had not adequately answered that question: “Only two Court of Appeals decisions have minimally touched on a similar facts pattern, but neither help.”
The Court then framed the issue as follows:
“But if the alleged victim and alleged aggressor are different people, this test falls short because it would resolve the immunity question by considering only whether the defendant's otherwise criminal act was justified against the attacker without regard to the alleged reckless injury inflicted on the victim. Our statutory scheme requires a different analytical path to address the crime charged.”
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.” This settled a question that had been unsettled since the passage of the “stand your ground”/ self-defense immunity law in Kansas.
I appreciate the work of the appellate division of the Office of the District Attorney in helping the Kansas Supreme Court wade through this difficult legal question issue which was an issue of first impression in Kansas.
Once the Kansas Supreme Court dockets the formal “remand,” the Betts case will be sent back to the district court for further proceedings.