When the Government Destroys a Home, Must It Pay for the Damage Done?
Police searched for a shoplifter and chased him into the Lechs’ home. Then the police literally blew up the family’s home, using explosives and a battering ram. Then—even after the government condemned the home and it had to be bulldozed—the police said they were merely exercising their “police power,” so they owed the Lechs nothing.
Arlington, Va. —When law enforcement agents blew up their home looking for an armed shoplifter, the Lech family presumed the government would pay for the destruction, especially considering the Lechs were completely innocent in the events that unfolded that 2014 day. But in a case now fully briefed for U.S. Supreme Court consideration, the courts have thus far shielded law enforcement from all financial accountability for its actions; the family alone must pay to replace their home.
“If the government needs to destroy your property to build a public school, it has the power to do so, but it must pay for what it takes,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Bob McNamara, who represents the Lechs. “But the courts have decided the usual rule doesn’t apply if the government destroys your home using the ‘police power,’ which is another way of allowing government to do and take what it wants without consequence.”
“The police are allowed to destroy property if they need to in order to do their jobs safely, and in this case, they were seeking a suspect who had fired on them,” said McNamara. “But under the Constitution, if the government destroys someone’s property to benefit the public, the entire public—not merely the innocent property owners alone—must pay for that social benefit. That’s just as true regardless of whether the government agents doing the destroying are the local school board or the local police.”
“It should shock the conscience that the most amazing fact here is not that the Lechs’ home was utterly destroyed by police using explosives and a battering ram, but that the federal appeals court ruled law enforcement’s action can never amount to a taking, and so the government doesn’t have to give the Lechs—who lost their entire home—a dime,” said IJ Attorney Jeff Redfern.
“This whole affair has quite simply totally destroyed our lives,” said Leo Lech, whose home was located in Greenwood Village, Colorado. “My son’s family was very literally thrown out into the street with the clothes on their back, offered $5,000, and told to ‘go deal with it.’”
“Property rights are the foundation of our rights,” said IJ President and General Counsel Scott Bullock. “The court’s ruling that government officials can purposefully destroy someone’s home without owing just compensation is not just wrong; it is dangerous and unconstitutional. The Institute for Justice is committed to seeing it overturned, for the Lechs and for the protection of property owners across America.”
The Institute for Justice is pursuing this case as part of its new Project on Immunity & Accountability, which is dedicated to vindicating the simple idea that the government is not above the law; if citizens must follow the law, then the government must follow the Constitution, too. And in this case, in which an entire home was destroyed, the law requires the government to pay when it takes private property.