If you break it, you buy it. Most of us learn this concept as children. But many police departments and cities across the country don’t understand that fundamental principle. In case after case, police departments and other government agencies have destroyed people’s homes, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damages, but refuse to pay for the mess they caused. The Institute for Justice (IJ) doesn’t accept that. We believe cities must pay for the damage they cause.
Last week, IJ sent a letter to the city of Austin, Texas, calling on officials to pay for the damage their police department’s SWAT unit caused to the home of Glen and Mindy Shield. On August 6, Austin police attempted to conduct a welfare check, but the situation turned into a complete disaster. An officer was shot and injured in the ordeal; when the SWAT unit arrived, they mistook where the gunfire was coming from and raided the Shields’ home, despite the couple having nothing to do with the chaos. Austin’s SWAT team blew the Shields’ front door off its hinges, ruptured their gas line, and caused an estimated $23,000 in property damage. They even detained the couple for three hours while the unit ransacked their home.
“The city’s claims investigator reportedly told the Shields that Texas law immunizes the city from liability. That’s simply incorrect,” said IJ Attorney Jeffrey Redfern. “While it’s true that the city has immunity from some types of property damage claims, the Texas Supreme Court has squarely held under the Texas Constitution that cities are required to compensate property owners for this kind of damage, and there is no immunity.”
Unfortunately, this ordeal isn’t a new problem in America. Both in Texas and elsewhere, police departments and SWAT teams have stormed into people’s homes and businesses, caused immense amounts of damage, then refused to pay for the destruction they caused. In June of last year, for example, a jury ruled that IJ client Vicki Baker was entitled to almost $60,000 in damages after police in McKinney, Texas, plundered her home while pursuing a fugitive. In another case IJ is litigating, the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT unit ruined the print shop of Carlos Pena while chasing a suspect who escaped.
In each of these cases IJ argues that under the Constitution, the government is required to provide “just compensation” if they take private property for public use. Most Americans are familiar with that concept regarding eminent domain, but we believe the principle applies just as strongly to instances where the government “takes” property by intentionally destroying it. For instance, if the government built a dam that caused an innocent farmer’s land to flood, the government should pay for that damage. Moreover, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of a property owner making this sort of claim in a separate case more than 40 years ago.
Glen and Mindy Shield, Carlos Pena, and Vicki Baker did nothing wrong. They were innocent individuals subjected to misguided decision-making that ultimately cost them—not police—tens of thousands of dollars. It’s not only unfair, but unconstitutional for cities to force property owners to foot the bill for their mistakes. It was the city’s officers who decided to wreck someone’s property, not the homeowners, and until more cities decide to take responsibility, we’ll be standing by ready to force them to pay up.