Constitutional Law

Cops aren't liable for destroying home of innocent people, 10th Circuit rules

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The owners of a home that was destroyed by police pursuing a fleeing suspect are not entitled to compensation under the takings clause, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday in an opinion that does not constitute binding precedent in other cases.

The court held that the officers acted under the state’s police power rather than the power of eminent domain, so any damage to the home fell outside the scope of the takings clause. The Washington Post has coverage.

The incident occurred in June 2015 in Greenwood Village, Colorado. An armed shoplifting suspect fleeing police holed up inside a home where John Lech was living with his girlfriend and her 9-year-old son. The boy was home at the time, but he escaped after the suspect entered.

Police negotiated with the suspect for about five hours after he fired a shot that struck a police car. When the negotiations failed, police fired several rounds of gas into the home, breached the front doors with an armored vehicle, sent in a robot and used explosives to create points of entry to the home.

A tactical team tried to enter the home but the suspect, Robert Seacat, fired at the officers. Police once again employed the armored vehicle to open multiple holes in the home. This time, the tactical team was able to arrest Seacat.

The home had to be demolished. The city of Greenwood Village offered to help with temporary living expenses while the home was rebuilt but refused to provide any other compensation.

Lech and his parents, the homeowners, were the lawsuit plaintiffs in the suit against Greenwood Village and several of its officers. They alleged violation of their constitutional rights stemming from destruction of the home and refusal to compensate them.

The Lechs argued that the takings clause should apply because it was designed to bar government from forcing some people alone to bear public burdens that in fairness should be borne by government.

They also argued that precedent distinguishing the power of eminent domain and police power should not apply to cases of innocent owners whose property is destroyed.

The appeals court rejected the arguments.

The court said the innocent owner argument “is not without support,” but it was joining the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in holding that there was no taking.

The panel was made up of judges appointed by Presidents Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.

Lech’s father, Leo Lech, told the Washington Post he may ask the Supreme Court to hear the case.

“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,’ ” he told the Post. “What happened to us should never happen in this country, ever.”

Lech said it cost nearly $400,000 to rebuild the home and, “This has ruined our lives.”

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