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Homeowners Appeal to U.S. Supreme Court in House-Destruction Case

Lech family takes their fight for compensation to nation’s highest court after police destroyed their house in pursuit of shoplifter

Arlington, Va.— In 2015, an armed shoplifter fleeing the police broke into a Greenwood Village, Colorado, home and refused to come out. After taking gunfire from the shoplifter, the police laid siege to the home. During a 19-hour standoff, officers used explosives, high-caliber ammunition and a battering ram mounted on a tank-like vehicle called a BearCat against the house. The fugitive was apprehended, but the home was totaled. And the homeowners were never compensated.

Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the appeal of Leo, Alfonsina and John Lech, seeking compensation for the destruction of the family’s house. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held in October 2019 that as long as the government uses its “police power” to destroy property, it cannot be required to provide compensation for that property under the U.S. Constitution’s Takings Clause.

“For well over a century, the Supreme Court has enforced a simple rule: The government has to pay for private property it takes or destroys,” explained IJ Attorney Jeffrey Redfern. “Today, we asked the Court to apply that simple rule in the Lechs’ case. If the government requires a piece of property to be destroyed, then the government should pay for it—that’s just as true regardless of whether the people doing the destroying are the local school board or the local police.”

The Lechs’ case, originally brought by Colorado attorney Rachel Maxam, who continues to represent the family alongside IJ, argued that the complete destruction of the house was a “taking” that required compensation under the U.S. Constitution. But a three-judge panel disagreed, ruling that actions by law enforcement officials could never amount to a taking, no matter what, and so the appropriate amount of compensation was zero dollars.

“We have tried for years to get Greenwood to do the right thing and compensate us for the complete destruction of our home,” said Leo Lech. “My son’s family were very literally thrown out into the street with the clothes on their backs, offered $5,000 and told to ‘go deal with it.’ We’re now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to protect our constitutional right for just compensation.”

The petition filed by IJ today asks the Supreme Court to uphold its precedents requiring just compensation under the Fifth Amendment. The Supreme Court has never found that the use of police power exempts government from paying when property is taken or destroyed. The appeal does not second-guess the police department’s use of force or tactics used to apprehend the suspect, only whether the homeowners or the public should be made to bear the cost incurred by the police department’s actions.

“The police are allowed to destroy property if they need to in order to do their jobs safely,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara. “But if the government destroys someone’s property in order to benefit the public, it is only fair that the public rather than an innocent property owner pay for that benefit.”

“The Supreme Court is meant to be the great bulwark of American liberty, ensuring that constitutional rights are enforced and holding government accountable when it strays from the Constitution,” said IJ President and General Counsel Scott Bullock. “That is exactly what it should do in the Lechs’ case. Property rights are the foundation of our rights. The lower court’s ruling that government officials can purposefully destroy someone’s home without owing a dime in compensation is dangerous and un-American. The Institute for Justice is committed to seeing it overturned, for the Lechs and for the protection of property owners across America.”

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