For insight into almost everything that’s wrong with modern police culture and our system of government oversight and accountability, one need only look at a recent decision by the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case involves a suburban Denver police department, which literally bombed and destroyed an innocent man’s house and then refused to pay compensation for the enormous damages it caused.
The story started with the pursuit of a suspected shoplifter, who allegedly stole two belts and a shirt at a local Walmart and, according to police, then broke into a nearby house to evade capture. A 9-year-old boy was home alone and left safely, and then the police were alerted. More than 100 police officers, a tactical team and their assorted military-style hardware arrived at the property in an effort to flush out the suspect from the house.
Police say the suspect fired his handgun at them. Then things got really crazy. As the court explained, officers “fired several rounds of gas munition into the home, breached the home’s doors with a BearCat armored vehicle so they could send in a robot to deliver a ‘throw phone, and used explosives to create sight lines and points of entry.”
When it was all said and done, the police apprehended the man but had destroyed Leo Lech’s house in the process. Lech and his son’s family, which lived at the property, had nothing to do with the suspect.
They were innocent bystanders, yet authorities used a strategy that, as Lech said in published reports, left his house in worse shape than Osama bin Laden’s.
The city of Greenwood Village reportedly condemned the obliterated home, so Lech demolished it and built a new one in its place.
The city paid Lech $5,000 in compensation for a house appraised at $580,000 (not to mention other costs, although they received a partial insurance settlement, according to reports), so they sued. The Lechs argued that the Constitution’s takings clause requires payment of “just compensation” when a government takes private property for public use. A lower court denied the challenge and then the appeals court issued its stunningly unjust decision.
The ruling embodied legalistic hairsplitting that found a technical excuse to deny the property owners a fair judgment.
The court ruled that the city’s actions amounted to a “public good” rather than a “public use.”
The former is the result of general police actions that protect public safety and is not subject to compensation.
Here’s the scariest line from the justices: “We likewise reject the Lechs’ assertion that the police power does not encompass the state’s ability to seize property from an innocent owner.”
Translation: In the course of their duty, police may destroy any private property and not have to pay for it, even if the victim is innocent of wrongdoing.
To quote Charles Dickens’ Mr. Bumble, if the law allows that, “then the law is an ass — a(n) idiot.”
Furthermore, the case raises questions of acceptable police tactics. In this case, as Reason magazine noted, the city quoted a SWAT training group that found the raid conducted “in a highly commendable manner.”
Instead of questioning the use of smoke bombs, a battering ram, a robot, armored vehicles, flash-bang grenades and gunfire to capture a low-level suspect with a handgun, officials proclaim it to be an acceptable and even commendable strategy. They will gladly use the same techniques on your home, if they deem it necessary.
As a police official once told me, if you give officers new toys, they are eager to use them. So, they had their chance to use their military-style devices — and the Lechs’ property and their constitutional rights were merely collateral damage.
One can debate the use of such devices and strategies, but the city ought to at least pay compensation for the damage. The city’s highfalutin legal argument persuaded the court otherwise, but Lech’s simple words get to the heart of the matter: “Whether you call it eminent domain or whatever, you can’t be blowing up people’s houses.”
The Lechs may appeal the decision, but they’ve been living with these losses for four years. Not only did the city lack remorse, but its spokesperson sent National Public Radio a statement with a photo of Lech’s handsome new house: “What Mr. Lech also failed to tell you was that he chose on his own to demolish the house rather than repair it, repour the foundation that wasn’t damaged and built a bigger house where the old one stood.”
I suppose he should have been thankful that his own city left him with an undamaged foundation.
It’s infuriating, but serves as a reminder: Government officials are not your friends. They will gladly destroy your property as they see fit, refuse to pay compensation and then mock you. And don’t expect the courts to protect you.
The only thing we can do is hope it never happens to us.