Couple Argues Eminent Domain for Home Destroyed in Police Standoff

(Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

DENVER (CN) – A Colorado family whose home was destroyed during a police standoff with a shoplifting suspect asked a 10th Circuit panel to revive their claims for compensation under the Fifth Amendment’s clause on eminent domain.

In 2015, the Greenwood Village, Colorado, Police Department responded to a call of a man shoplifting two belts and a shirt from an area Walmart. The suspect, Jonathan Seacat, shot at police as he fled and then randomly picked the home of Leo and Alfonsia Lech to hide.

Only the Lechs’ 9-year-old grandson was home at the time and he quickly fled the house.

Over the next 19 hours, police attempted to flush Seacat out, eventually using a boom ram on an armored vehicle to tear open holes in the Lechs’ home to expose Seacat and make it easier for a sniper to find him.

Rendered uninhabitable by the standoff, the Lechs had to be rebuild from the ground up. Greenwood Village offered $5,000 to help with the expense of being rendered homeless, but refused to be held accountable for the home’s destruction.

After the family sued, U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer sided with Greenwood Village this year and found the destruction was justified given the circumstance.

The Lechs’ attorney Rachel Maxam told a 10th Circuit panel on Tuesday, however, that the case “strikes at the very heart” of the Fifth Amendment’s compensation requirement when the government takes private property.

“If an innocent person’s property is destroyed by the police, should that burden be taken on by the individual?” she asked.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jerome Holmes asked Maxam if she believed the police had temporarily used the home or completely taken it.

“The home was completely taken in that it was completely destroyed,” Maxam said. “The only thing we’re arguing for is that if the police deem it necessary to destroy a property then innocent – keyword innocent – property owners should be compensated,” Maxam said.

Otherwise, she said, “this is an unseen expansion of police powers in that property can be destroyed in the name of enforcing the law.”

Arguing for the city of Greenwood Village, attorney Andrew Nathan of the Denver firm Nathan, Bremer, Dumm & Myer balked at holding local governments liable for every dollar of damage incurred in law enforcement.

“There’s damage caused in arrest warrants. There’s damage caused in searches and seizures. There’s damage caused when stopping a high-speed chase – which is very dangerous,” Nathan said.

Judge Holmes asked Nathan to hone in on this specific case.

“We’re talking about taking someone’s home, that’s a different animal, isn’t it?” Holmes asked.

Nathan emphasized a difference between compensating property owners for property loss through eminent domain – where a property becomes continuously used by the public – versus taking property in an emergency situation. He also started to draw a comparison between the Lechs’ sacrifice and the sacrifices of military service members.

“We have memorials to people who have to bear the burden because we are at war,” Nathan suggested before Holmes cut him off.

“I don’t see that comparison. If this property was taken for the public – whatever language you use – why wouldn’t they be compensated?” Holmes asked. “The question is not of police action; the question is of compensation. It is not whether you did a good thing, but are you going to pay for it?”

U.S. Circuit Judges Monroe G. McKay and Nancy Moritz also sat on the panel. They did not indicate when they will rule.

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