A federal appeals court says a Colorado town is not liable for damage after police destroyed an innocent man’s home during a long siege to arrest a suspected shoplifter who had randomly taken refuge there.
The 19-hour standoff unfolded in Greenwood Village, Colorado, in 2015 after the suspected thief, Robert Jonathan Seacat, tried to escape police by running into a house owned by Leo Lech.
After Seacat, who refused to surrender, fired on police, officers brought in a SWAT team that fired gas munition and 40-millimeter rounds through the windows, punched through doors with an armored vehicle and blew out walls with explosives and flash-bang grenades. Almost every window in the home was destroyed.
Seacat eventually was overpowered. He was convicted on 17 felony counts, but the home was rendered uninhabitable and had to be torn down and rebuilt.
The city of Greenwood Village said in a statement that it had offered to pay Lech $5,000 for temporary living expenses. It also said a review of the incident by the National Tactical Officers Association found that police “acted in a highly commendable manner.”
Although the home, which his son was renting at the time, was appraised at $580,000, Lech’s insurance paid only $345,000. Lech eventually took out a $600,000 mortgage and rebuilt the home over two years, according to the Denver Post.
One of Lech’s attorneys, Rachel Maxam, told the newspaper that it was a “miracle” that Lech’s insurance company paid anything. “Insurance is for fires, floods,” she said. “There’s no ‘police blew up my house’ insurance.”
The unanimous ruling this week by a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld a federal district court finding that the city owes Lech nothing.
The appeals court said Greenwood Village is not required to compensate the Lech family because the home was destroyed by police while they were trying to enforce the law, rather than taken by eminent domain.
It said the officers’ action “fell within the scope of the police power” and did fall under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, which guarantees citizens compensation if their property is seized by the government for public use, such as building a highway.
While noting that this view may seem “unfair,” the court found that when police have to protect the public, they cannot be “burdened with the condition” that the state compensate those damaged by their actions.
In its statement, Greenwood Village said courts that have analyzed the question “have recognized that while these types of events present difficult questions, the police should value life over property and may act pursuant to their police powers accordingly.”
Leo Lech told the Post the ordeal “destroyed” his family’s life.
“The way we were treated is barbaric,” he said. “The whole thing is a debacle of epic proportions.”
“The bottom line is that destroying somebody’s home and throwing them out in the street by a government agency for whatever circumstances is not acceptable in a civilized society,” he added.
Lech said he planned to appeal the ruling to the full 10th circuit panel and possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Colorado town not liable after police destroy Leo Lech’s home