SWAT Destruction Case Breaks Down First Barrier

Jeffrey Redfern
Jeffrey Redfern  ·  April 1, 2024

Recent issues of Liberty & Law have featured several IJ cases on behalf of innocent homeowners whose houses were destroyed by SWAT teams. (Usually, the police were after totally unrelated criminal suspects.) Many cities simply refuse to compensate innocent homeowners in these situations, and insurance typically excludes damage caused by the government. 

Until a few years ago, the idea that the homeowner could sue a city for compensation seemed fanciful to most lawyers. But the tide is slowly turning. A federal judge in California recently rejected the city of Los Angeles’ attempt to have one of our SWAT cases thrown out. 

IJ client Carlos Pena owned a print shop in North Hollywood. That is, until a fugitive barricaded himself inside and a Los Angeles SWAT team assaulted the shop, destroying all of Carlos’ expensive printing equipment. 

Carlos isn’t challenging the police’s attempts to catch the fugitive. But the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires the government to compensate people when it destroys their property for the public goal of law enforcement.

This ruling is significant because it comes on the heels of a setback in our SWAT project. A federal court of appeals recently ruled that this kind of destruction by the police is exempt from the just compensation requirement of the Constitution. (IJ will ask the Supreme Court to review that decision.) Los Angeles asked the trial court to follow that other court’s misguided ruling, but the judge declined, saying it wasn’t binding. 

Getting a win like this in Los Angeles, right after a disappointing decision in another jurisdiction, drives home that strategic litigation is a long-term project. Some setbacks are inevitable, and setting new constitutional precedent takes persistence and resilience. Fortunately, both are in IJ’s DNA.

Jeffrey Redfern is an IJ attorney. 

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