Constitutional Law

7th Circuit: Landlord Who Rented to Murder Suspect Has No Constitutional Claim for Property Damage


A Wisconsin landlord who had the misfortune to rent to convicted murderer Steven Avery has no constitutional claim for damages to his property caused by investigators, according to a federal appeals court.

The opinion by Judge Terrence Evans begins this way: “A landlord is lucky when he rents a dwelling he owns to a tenant who turns out to be pretty good. When he rents to a tenant who turns out to be fairly bad, he’s unlucky. And then there’s a landlord like Roland Johnson who goes far beyond being merely unlucky. Johnson picked a doozy of a tenant—he rented to a fellow named Steven Avery.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Proof & Hearsay blog notes that Avery was convicted of murdering photographer Teresa Halbach in a rented trailer two years after he was released from prison in 2003 for a 1986 rape. Avery was freed from his first stint in prison based on DNA evidence that pointed to another suspect. He contends he was framed for the murder, and his case is on appeal.

Johnson sued after authorities investigating the murder removed carpet sections and wall paneling, cut up a couch, and jackhammered the concrete floor of his garage. Evans found that Johnson’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated because the government actions were reasonable. Nor did he have a claim under the taking clause, Evans said, because it applies only in cases of eminent domain.

Johnson is not completely out of luck, however. He can seek redress under Wisconsin procedures for compensation, Evans said.

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