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You Swat It, You Bought It

Roughly a year ago, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals shocked advocates of property rights and government accountability when it held that the government can deliberately destroy an innocent family’s house and not compensate them for the damage. IJ sought the U.S. Supreme Court’s review, and when it denied cert we resolved to challenge the basis of the 10th Circuit’s decision in a future case.

This spring, we filed that case on behalf of Vicki Baker. 

For some time, Vicki had wanted to leave the Dallas suburbs. With her children grown, she decided the time had come to fulfill her dream of retiring to Montana. As of last summer, everything seemed to be coming together: Vicki had found a buyer for her house, and in a matter of weeks she would be enjoying a peaceful and financially stable retirement.

On July 25, 2020, however, everything changed. That morning, Vicki’s daughter, Deanna, was at her mother’s house preparing it for sale when she learned that police were looking for a man suspected of abducting a teenage girl. Deanna recognized the suspect—Vicki and Deanna had hired him months earlier to install some shelves. Then Deanna heard a knock at the door: To her horror, it was the same man, with the missing girl, saying that he needed to use the house. Fearing for her life, Deanna let them inside. She then left and immediately called the police.

Police surrounded the house. After a few hours, the girl left unharmed, but the man remained inside. Deanna had given the police a garage door opener, a code to the back gate, and the keys to the front door so they could get into the house. The police used none of these and decided instead to have a SWAT team storm the house using explosives, toxic gas, and an armored vehicle. Ultimately, the suspect committed suicide before he could be apprehended.

In addition to destroying Vicki’s fence and garage door, the SWAT team broke every window in her house, damaged the roof, and burst the pipes. The chemicals from the gas canisters were so toxic that a hazmat team had to dispose of all textiles, and all of the floors, walls, and ceilings needed repair. The assault left Vicki’s dog deaf and blind and caused an estimated $80,000 in damage to the house. The buyer, not surprisingly, pulled out of the negotiated deal. 

Vicki believes Deanna did the right thing for their community by calling the police—but she did not expect to be left to cover the bill singlehandedly. Vicki’s insurance company refused to pay for most repairs, citing a clause that disclaims coverage for damage caused by the government. The city, too, refused to pay. That left Vicki with a substantial loss of her own savings—money that she was counting on for retirement.

Watch more about the case here.

If the government never has to pay for the damage when it chooses to use a tank rather than a garage door opener, it has no incentive to use less destructive means to achieve its goals in the future. What’s more, the takings clauses of both the U.S. and Texas constitutions affirm that the government can use and even intentionally destroy innocent owners’ property for the public good—but it must compensate them for the taking. IJ has teamed up with Vicki to ensure that the government abides by those constitutional rules and that it cannot arbitrarily single out innocent, unlucky private citizens to bear the costs of something that should, rightly, be the burden of society as a whole.

Suranjan Sen is an IJ Law & Liberty Fellow.

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