Federal Court Says Destroying Someone's House To Apprehend A Fugitive Might Be A Constitutional Violation
from the FINALLY dept
Law enforcement has a pretty cavalier attitude towards private property. Whatever property they aren’t unjustifiably seizing from drivers and passengers, they’re razing to the ground. Sometimes they destroy whole houses during plain vanilla warrant service. Other times, situations are determined to be stand-offs in need of wholesale destruction, even when officers are facing down an empty house.
You’d think this sort of brazen and unjustified destruction would result in successful lawsuits to recover costs and damages incurred by these actions. But you’d be wrong. A successful lawsuit for law enforcement destruction of private property is more rare than a successful lawsuit over property seized via asset forfeiture.
Courts tend to defer to law enforcement expertise, often opining that this collateral damage is just an unfortunate side effect of good police work. Officers are free to overcome any obstacles placed in the way of their objectives, and if that means entire walls of houses need to be destroyed, that’s just the way it is. Who are we (this is the judges speaking) to second-guess decisions made in the heat of the moment, even when said moment is a daylong “standoff.”
Two Appeals Courts have issued precedential decisions that affect two entire circuits (the Ninth and Tenth), which make lawsuits brought in those jurisdictions even more unlikely to prevail. But a recent lawsuit — featuring representation by the Institute for Justice (which has also had success fighting bogus forfeitures) — has just experienced some limited success. It was brought by a woman whose residence was the victim of an overzealous Texas SWAT team that apparently felt the only way it could apprehend a suspect was by causing more than $50,000 of damage to her home.
It’s not like the McKinney PD didn’t have options. Vicki Baker, the plaintiff, gave them plenty, as Billy Binion reports for Reason.
In July 2020, Wesley Little—who Vicki Baker had terminated as her handyman about a year and a half prior—arrived at Baker’s home in McKinney, Texas. Baker’s daughter answered. Recognizing him from news reports that he was wanted for the abduction of a 15-year-old girl, she left the premises and called the police.
SWAT agents soon arrived. They set off explosives to open the garage entryway, detonated tear gas grenades inside the building, ran over Baker’s fence with an armored vehicle, and ripped off her front door, despite being given a garage door opener, a code to the back gate, and a key to the home. The house was unlivable when they were through.
Baker’s insurance company said it wasn’t liable for damages caused by the government. The government — in this case, the city of McKinney — said it wasn’t liable because she wasn’t a victim of anything. The police had a legitimate reason to destroy her house (the apprehension of a fugitive). Sorry, but not anyone’s fault, the city shrugged.
Baker sued. And a federal court has come down on her side. It very plausibly is the city’s problem and it can be held liable for the unnecessary destruction of this home, says the court [PDF].
Because at this stage the Court construes all well-pleaded facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds Baker has plausibly alleged an official policy promulgated by the City of McKinney. As alleged in the Complaint, after the City’s destruction of her property, Baker requested compensation from the City of McKinney, but the City denied the request, stating that there was ‘no liability on the part of the City or any of its employees.’” This assertion is sufficient to plausibly allege a “a single unconstitutional action by a municipal actor”— that is, a denial of the constitutionally mandated just compensation following a taking by the government.
As the court notes, this isn’t the end of the discussion. As it points out earlier, there exists no precedent in its jurisdiction or in the Fifth Circuit saying the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment applies to incidents like these. But rather than use that lack of precedent as a means to dismiss her suit, it comes to the conclusion that destroying a home (and refusing to compensate the innocent homeowner) is a Fifth Amendment violation.
The City asks this Court to adopt what would constitute a per se rule—that destruction to private property resulting from the exercise of valid police power cannot constitute a Fifth Amendment Taking. Neither the Supreme Court nor the Fifth Circuit have directly found a taking that requires just compensation when destruction of property results from the exercise of valid police power. The City correctly points out that other circuits have foreclosed recovery under similar circumstances.
However, both the Fifth Circuit and the Supreme Court have suggested such action could amount to a taking… In Lucas v. S.C. Coastal Council, the Supreme Court opined that if “the uses of private property were subject to unbridled, uncompensated qualification under the police power, the natural tendency of human nature would be to extend the qualification more and more until at last private property disappeared.”
This federal court decides that sort of buck-passing stops here, at least for the time being. Not every claim is a valid Takings Clause claim, but this one appears to be at this point.
While the Court acknowledges that governmental bodies are not “liable under the Just Compensation Clause to property owners every time policemen break down the doors of buildings to foil burglars thought to be inside[,]” Nat’l Bd. of Young Men’s Christian Ass’ns v United States, 395 U.S. 85, 92 (1969) (emphasis added), Baker has alleged damage to her private property—and the City’s refusal to compensate for such damage—that plausibly amounts to a Fifth Amendment violation.
That’s good enough to avoid dismissal. The same goes for the state law claims under the Texas constitution.
Baker pleaded that her home was intentionally destroyed in the government’s effort to apprehend Little. The affirmative actions Baker alleges include Department officers: (1) storming the house; (2) breaking windows; (3) knocking down the garage door; (4) knocking down the backyard fence; and (5) firing dozens of explosive tear gas cannisters into the home. Such actions were intentional, even if the City’s motives were to secure a threat to public safety. To be sure, the City itself indicates “the [Department] dr[ew] up plans” before busting into Baker’s home to apprehend Little. The resulting damage, therefore, can hardly be considered “incidental consequence[s] of the City’s actions.” Lastly, Baker alleges the City took her property for a public use—apprehension of a dangerous fugitive whose freedom threatened the community and public as a whole.
Baker has sufficiently pleaded a takings claim under the Texas Constitution. The actions taken by the Department officers damaged Baker’s home—that much appears undisputed. Even if the government did not intend to damage Baker’s property to apprehend Little, the City was substantially certain such damage would result. It is unreasonable for the City to suggest the Department officers stormed Baker’s house, broke the windows, knocked down the garage door, rammed down the backyard fence with a tank-like vehicle, and fired dozens of explosive tear gas cannisters into the home without a degree of certainty that such actions would cause damage to the property. As such, and after considering the pleadings and case law cited above, the Court finds Baker has sufficiently pleaded a violation of Article I, § 17 of the Texas Constitution as to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.
This doesn’t mean the city of McKinney can’t still find a way to screw this homeowner. But this does definitely make it more difficult to escape the lawsuit. And that extra degree of difficulty may be all it takes for the city to cut a check. To push it further might mean setting precedent at a higher level that would make cities and law enforcement agencies liable for excessive damage to private property. And that’s precedent no law enforcement agency in the nation is in any hurry to see set.