Sorry We Destroyed Your Home, But That’s The Way It Goes!

There are always times that we think the world has gone mad.

Take the case of Leo Lech who owned a home in Greenwood Village, Colorado which he was renting to his son.

In 2015, a suspected WalMart shoplifter was running from the police. The guy broke into the home and barricaded himself in the bathroom creating a standoff with the Greenwood Village Police Department which lasted 19 hours.

During that time, the police were busy.

When they were finished, it looked as though the Greenwood Village, Colo., police had blasted rockets through the house.

Projectiles were still lodged in the walls. Glass and wooden paneling crumbled on the ground below the gaping holes, and inside, the family’s belongings and furniture appeared thrashed in a heap of insulation and drywall. Leo Lech, who rented the home to his son, thought it looked like al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s compound after the raid that killed him.

But now it was just a neighborhood crime scene, the suburban home where an armed Walmart shoplifting suspect randomly barricaded himself after fleeing the store on a June afternoon in 2015. For 19 hours, the suspect holed up in a bathroom as a SWAT team fired gas munition and 40-millimeter rounds through the windows, drove an armored vehicle through the doors, tossed flash-bang grenades inside and used explosives to blow out the walls.

The home was in such bad shape that Greenwood Village condemned the property.

Without a home and Greenwood Village offering a mere $5000 for expenses in relocating, the Lech’s sued the various members of the police department and Greenwood Village itself. Basically, their claim was “the police destroyed our home, and under the takings clause of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution, we want to be compensated for that loss.”

How much loss?

To rebuild the home and replace the contents was over $400,000.

What is amazing to us is that this whole thing started with the suspect, one Robert Jonathan Seacat, was thought to have stolen a shirt and a couple of belts from WalMart.

Seacat drove away from the scene in a Lexus, abandoned the car, crossed an interstate and then broke into the home owned by the Lech’s.

We are going to be generous and say the value of the items Seacat was alleged to have stolen was $200.

Under Colorado statutes, the penalty for shoplifting with the value of items being less than $300, the penalties are up to 6 months jail time and fines up to $750.

Think about that for a moment. For items valued less than $300, the police destroyed $400,000 worth of property. We would even bet that with the grenades, shells, ammunition, etc, used the police spent well over $300.

We all know that police have essentially discontinued the practice of high speed car chases due to the potential loss of life and property, but here, the target was not a car, but a home.

The lawsuit essentially went nowhere in the District Count and now the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has dismissed the Lech’s lawsuit saying that the home was not “taken” for the purposes of the 5th Amendment, but was destroyed in the pursuit of keeping people safe.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit unanimously ruled that the city is not required to compensate the Lech family for their lost home because it was destroyed by police while they were trying to enforce the law, rather than taken by eminent domain.

The Lechs had sued under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, which guarantees citizens compensation if their property is seized by the government for public use. But the court said that Greenwood Village was acting within its “police power” when it damaged the house, which the court said doesn’t qualify as a “taking” under the Fifth Amendment. The court acknowledged that this may seem “unfair,” but when police have to protect the public, they can’t be “burdened with the condition” that they compensate whomever is damaged by their actions along the way.

This was not some shirt that was ripped or a chair that was broken. This was a house destroyed over a guy who was thought to have stolen less than $300.

“It just goes to show that they can blow up your house, throw you out on the streets and say, ‘See you later. Deal with it,’ ” Leo Lech said in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday. “What happened to us should never happen in this country, ever.”

There are several points to note here. When the police tried to apprehend Seacat, he fired a gun at them causing them repeatedly to withdraw. For all their training and overwhelming advantage in equipment and firepower, one guy with a hand gun held basically the entire police department at bay for 19 hours.

Secondly, there is a complete lack of proportionality here. Two hundred dollars vs $four hundred grand just doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, if the police have no duty or accountability to try and keep destruction of a property to a minimum, there is no limit to what they can destroy.

According to the WaPo article, some courts have disagreed with this decision in similar cases:

State and federal courts have ruled differently in cases involving innocent homeowners caught in deadly police raids, although the 10th Circuit was more persuaded by courts ruling in police’s favor.

Lech’s lawyers pointed to a 1991 Minnesota case in which the state Supreme Court sided with a woman whose house was damaged by police with tear gas as they sought to apprehend a suspect. In a 1980 Houston case, the Texas Supreme Court sided with a couple whose home was badly damaged as police sought to apprehend three suspects who barricaded themselves inside.

In that case, the Texas court turned up its nose at the principle the 10th Circuit stuck to so closely in its ruling: that unless a government’s action is clearly labeled “eminent domain,” citizens aren’t entitled to compensation if the police destroy their property as a matter of business.

“This court has moved beyond the earlier notion that the government’s duty to pay for taking property rights is excused by labeling the taking as an exercise of police powers,” the Texas court wrote at the time.

Lech is deciding whether to appeal to the Supreme Court and we hope he does. While we think the police and the decision in the Lech case was wrong, our bigger concern is that you have courts across the land deciding cases with similar facts differently. When that happens, the issue is one that the Supreme Court takes up and should take up. People should not have different standards in resolving conflicts dependent on where they live. The same is true for the police. They should not have to deal with different standards and outcomes dependent on the state in which they patrol.

No matter how things are resolved, we will still be amazed that $400K of damage was done to the property of an innocent third party by the government, and that government says “but….but…. but we were recovering a short and two belts from Wally World!”

But that is just us.

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