St. Louis County Pays Woman $750,000 After Cops Perform A No-Knock Raid, Kill Her Dog… All Over Unpaid Utility Bills

from the thin-blue-gas-flame dept

Here’s where we are in the development of the American police state: no-knock raids over code violations.

Angela Zorich says she remembers the April day in 2014 like it was yesterday.

“I saw them and they’re just pouring in, they’re covered head to toe, they got helmets, they’re like military style,” said Zorich.

Her life forever changed after she says the St. Louis County Police Department’s SWAT team came with a no-knock warrant for an unpaid gas bill.

“Why is this cop able to call in a SWAT team because I didn’t have gas service at my house?” said Zorich.

The taxpayers of St. Louis County are now out $750,000 because the local boys thought the best way to address a “problem property” complaint was to talk themselves into feeling reasonably afraid and head in guns blazing.

The officers knew Zorich possessed at least one pit bull. But this alone wasn’t enough to justify the no-knock raid. Nor the murder of the dog. Officers claimed the dog charged them, necessitating the killing of the family pet. But testimony during the trial exposed this for the lie it was. The dog was shot in the back, six feet away from the nearest officer who, let’s remember, was wearing tactical gear.

That wasn’t the only lie. The St. Louis County Police also apparently misled the judge about the level of danger they might be facing.

[Attorney Jerome J.] Dobson says the lead officer fabricated a story to a judge and fellow SWAT members, leading them to believe Zorich’s sons were highly violent, to get the no-knock warrant issued.

Dobson says that warrant was executed just two hours after it was signed.

“No evidence was going to be destroyed, you’re not going to flush the gas meter down the toilet,” said Dobson.

From the details of the case, it appears the St. Louis County Police may not have even have had judicial permission to serve a no-knock warrant. The SWAT team had a warrant but it was the SWAT team leader who arbitrarily decided the team could bypass the Constitutional niceties of knock-and-announce. All this to serve an administrative warrant — not a criminal warrant — to search for evidence of violations of County ordinances.

Upon obtaining the Warrant, Rinck contacted Pfanstiel, a Tactical Operations Unit (“TAC”) supervisor, and requested he execute the Warrant. Approximately one hour after obtaining the Warrant, Rink met Pfanstiel and other TAC officers at a park close to Plaintiff’s house. Rinck informed the TAC officers that residents of Plaintiff’s home had histories of violent behavior, including numerous assaults and one armed robbery, and that someone inside Plaintiff’s house had slammed the door and shouted “fuck you” at him several days earlier. Rinck also told the officers about the many complaints the police department received about Plaintiff’s dogs, including a report that her pit bull attacked another dog. Rinck did not mention the telephone conversation that he and Plaintiff had the previous day.

Because Fumagalli was the “team leader” and Zavorka was the “point person,” they reviewed the Warrant and drove by Plaintiff’s property with Rinck in preparation for execution of the Warrant. Fumagalli created a plan for execution of the Warrant. Pfanstiel approved Fumagalli’s plan and decided the TAC team would perform a no-knock entry.

That’s not how that’s supposed to work. No-knock warrants need to be issued by judges who can view the sworn statements justifying this kind of entry. This decision was made after the warrant — a regular warrant — had already been obtained. And this decision was unilateral — subject zero impartial review.

And that’s why the county is now paying Zorich for killing her dog during this raid over an unpaid gas bill. This case was headed to trial and the County has decided taxpayers should pay for the violations committed by their public servants, rather than let these public servants be held individually responsible for their terrible decisions and actions.

In support of his position that deployment of a TAC team to execute the Warrant was justified because there was an immediate threat to officer safety, Rinck cites Holland. There, the Tenth Circuit held that the decision to deploy a SWAT team to execute search and misdemeanor arrest warrants at a 60-acre compound was reasonable because the owner and several other residents had histories of violence, officers suspected there would be firearms present, and the SWAT team’s “goal was to effect the arrest and search warrant quickly, without injury, and to preserve evidence.” 268 F.3d at 1190-91.

The instant case is inapposite. The SWAT team in Holland was deployed to arrest a criminal suspect and seize evidence of an assault. Here, the TAC officers’ intended to gain entry and secure Plaintiff’s house to enable Rinck and the housing inspectors to inspect Plaintiff’s property for housing code violations, none of which were characterized as emergent. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, Rinck determined, in the absence of any exigency and without allowing Plaintiff a reasonable opportunity to consent to an inspection, that it would be appropriate for the TAC unit to execute the Warrant within hours of obtaining it. Based on these facts, a reasonable jury could find that Rinck’s conduct deprived Plaintiff of her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

I’m sure most of us believe everyone should pay their bills. But do we believe it hard enough to send 10 armed officers through the front door of someone who isn’t keeping their gas bill current? I doubt that. And I doubt any jury would either.

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Comments on “St. Louis County Pays Woman $750,000 After Cops Perform A No-Knock Raid, Kill Her Dog… All Over Unpaid Utility Bills”

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Anonymous Coward says:

There are just too many examples of cops shooting family dogs, whether or not the dogs are actually being aggressive towards or even barking at the cops, to conclude other than that cops like to shoot dogs. It’s a form of extrajudicial punishment against civilians that cops aren’t usually held accountable for.

David says:

Re: Re:

Dogs generally react to aggression towards the family without considering their own safety. Thus they are likely to interfere with massively armed bullying of incompetent actors and make them look bad. Shooting them early makes the situation easier to handle for simpletons and counts as property damage rather than murder.

It’s a lot less likely to get an indictment than shooting some recalcitrant human family member, while still getting the message across that one is dealing with heavily armed incompetent cowards and should watch one’s step if one wants to survive.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Well, not quite everyone...

I’m sure most of us believe everyone should pay their bills. But do we believe it hard enough to send 10 armed officers through the front door of someone who isn’t keeping their gas bill current? I doubt that. And I doubt any jury would either.

Unless that $750,000 is coming straight from the department’s budget and the pensions of every single badge wearing scumbag involved this is yet another case where at least one person(the judge) doesn’t believe everyone should pay their bills.

Ah the joys of being a cop, where someone else always foots the bill and ‘personal responsibility’ as a concept(at least as it applies to those with badges) gets thrown out the window from the get-go.

Anonymous Coward says:

St Louis CITY vs St Louis COUNTY

The county police dept acted despicably, and not really unexpectedly!

But the article incorrectly refers to it as "the St Louis PD" a couple times. It’s really important here to know that the CITY of St Louis is NOT part of the COUNTY of St Louis. They don’t overlap – the city is essentially its own county.

The County is predominantly white, conservative, suburban.
The City is racially mixed, liberal, urban.

Techdirt, I love reading your articles. Could you correct your references to "the St Louis PD"? Thanks

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

You will respect my authoritah!

The gas had been off since 2014 which, I suppose, means St. Louis has one of those stupid ordinances such that a house is not suitable for occupancy if it doesn’t use the mandatory gas.

Be that as it may, code violation was clearly an excuse. The real reason they got SWAT’ed is because they didn’t show proper respect for officer Rinck’s authoritah.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: You will respect my authoritah!

Yeah, there has to be more to this story. Unpaid bills go into collections, not into the SWAT to-do list. There must be more to this story that we’re not hearing because there’s no way an unpaid utility bill on its own would trigger SWAT intervention. I mean, these days LEO == Asshole but this story jumps from step 1 to step 9 without talking about steps 2-8.

David says:

Re: Re:

And it’s just the taxpayer getting fucked, not the cop who lied to the judge in order to get a warrant, and lied to the SWAT team in order to get revenge for getting yelled at. And there will be no retribution to the SWAT leader who decided not to need a no-knock warrant for no-knock entry either.

The county makes sure that there is no deterrent to state-paid actors confusing the police department with an organised crime syndicate. Well, except that usually this amount of stupidity makes one ineligible for participating in an organised crime syndicate without the backup of the taxpayer.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: 'You say 'fuck you'. I say 'open fire'. I win.'

Well of course, can’t let the peons think that they are even remotely equal to the police, or can show disrespect(which is to say anything less than grovelling submission) without consequences after all.

Really, the plaintiff should feel lucky that the punishment was only the execution of their dog rather than a bullet or two(dozen) sent their way, a fact I’m sure the sterling paragons of justice in uniform will be quite happy to make clear after the plaintiff had the utter audacity to bring them to court over such a trifling matter as the police going out of their way to teach them manners and their proper place in society.

What I could but wish was sarcasm aside(as I suspect it’s close if not dead-on to the motivations in play), unless the thugs in uniform are personally on the hook for some or all of the fine I’d say that they came ahead here. They made clear that if you talk back to them they will punish you for it and get away with it, such that others are going to be much more likely to treat them as the dangerous crooks they are, with fearful submission lest they be the next example of what insulting the cops gets you.

As I keep saying, ‘stupid criminals go to jail. Smart criminals get a badge.’

Berenerd (profile) says:

What bothers me is, when do cops or sheriffs go on site to deliver a past due notice? They don’t even do that when you don’t pay your property taxes. They put a lien on the house and don’t even need police, there is civil court for civil issues in which this is. When I call the police about my neighbor breaking my lawn mower and refusing to fix it, they will tell me straight out, they do NOT deal with civil matters.

Freyja says:

Since when is not connecting a utility a crime?

Any where we ever lived, we never connected the gas unless it was connected to the water heater or stove. But if it was just for heating the home, we never got it connected & used space heaters. It saved us about $300/month in heating bills during the winter. Since when is this a crime & since when is it a substantial enough crime to issue ANY sort of fucking warrant?!

Even though the article didn’t mention her race, I’d bet every dollar I’ve ever made in my life that she’s a black American woman. If she had been a white woman, they never would have sought a warrant & let it go to the back of the stack.

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