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.