Friday, November 8, 2019

Appellate Court Holds That Police Are Not Liable for Destruction of Family Home

A recent Federal Appellate case clarifies that significant damage to real property resulting from a valid police pursuit is covered under a state's police power and is not a government taking. 

The case stemmed from events occurring in June of 2015. At that time, Greenwood City Police officers responded to a burglar alarm at the home of the Lechs. The responding officers, quickly learned that an armed criminal suspect who was attempting to evade capture was inside. In order to prevent escape, the officers positioned their vehicles in the driveway of the Lechs' home. Upon seeing this, the suspect fired a bullet from inside the garage and struck an officer's car. The officers deemed the incident a high-risk, barricade situation. 

Over the next several hours, negotiators attempted to resolve the situation. After these efforts proved unsuccessful, the officers released several rounds of gas munition into the house. They then breached the home's doors with a BearCat armored vehicle so they could send in a robot to deliver a "throw phone". They also used explosives to create sight lines and points of entry to the home. Eventually, officers used the BearCat to open multiple holes in the home and again deployed a tactical team to apprehend the suspect. Although the tactical team was successful, the Lech’s family home was rendered uninhabitable.

The City denied liability for the incident and declined to provide compensation to help rebuild the home. The Lechs then sued alleging the city violated the Takings Clause of both the United States and Colorado Constitutions by damaging the Lechs' home without providing just compensation.

The Appellate court, in an opinion that can only be cited for persuasive authority, held that the City did not have to compensate the Lechs. The court stated that the city was not responsible for the cost of rebuilding the home because (1) the law-enforcement actions fell within the scope of the police power; and (2) actions taken pursuant to the police power do not constitute a government taking since it is for the public good rather than public use.  However, this decision is not a blank check for the destruction of property during police pursuits. As the Court pointed out, police officers who willfully or wantonly destroy property may be responsible for civil damages.