Destroying houses appears to be a cop hobby. Somehow searching for suspects involves punching larger-than-man-size holes in walls, shattering every pane of glass that separates cops from perps, and forcibly removing every door that would otherwise open as designed if officers attempted to use the handles.
Maybe some of this is justified if an armed and dangerous suspect is barricaded inside. But law enforcement agencies have made citizens suspected of nothing homeless while attempting to extricate shoplifting suspects, homeless people, and a man armed with nothing more than an ice cream bar. One woman’s house was rendered unlivable after it was the centerpiece in a 10-hour standoff between local cops and the only resident located in the house: the family dog. And a house that contained no one was destroyed after its empty interior thwarted cops’ efforts to apprehend a nonexistent suspect for more than 19 hours.
Trying to get anyone other than innocent homeowners to pay for this damage is almost impossible. Almost every court has considered this the cost of doing government business — something taxpayers are always asked to cover. If officers have a law enforcement reason to raze houses, the cost must be borne by those unhoused.
Another case involving the destruction of a house to capture a suspect who wasn’t even on the premises has made its way into the court system. And it has (mostly) dead-ended there, thanks to a recent decision by the South Dakota Supreme Court.
In this case, the Hamlin County Sheriff’s Department was searching for Gary Hamen, who had an outstanding arrest warrant for felony burglary and violation of a protective order. Gary — who had threatened to shoot himself and anyone else he came in contact with — called his father, Gareth, asking for a vehicle to drive to “Canada or Mexico.” At that point, he was in a nearby trailer home owned by Gareth, located about 600 feet away from Gareth’s trailer.
Officers listened in on this phone call and deputies saw Gary exit the trailer and then walk back inside. The Sheriff’s Department requested the assistance of the Watertown PD and secured a drone to fly over the trailer in an attempt to spot Gary or see any exit routes he might take.
A SWAT team assembled and set up a perimeter around the trailer. But this effort appears to have been mostly pointless. From the decision [PDF]:
While the SWAT team attempted to contact Gary, officers received a report that a local resident had observed Gary running towards Castlewood. The resident reported that Gary came out of a tree line near a river and sewage pond, but he had run back into the trees. Sergeant Ellis and the SWAT team tried to locate Gary in this area and encountered another witness who also believed he had seen Gary. An officer inside the armored vehicle called Gary’s cellphone. Gary answered the phone call and claimed he was almost to Minnesota. He sounded out of breath, like he was running.
Law enforcement also spoke to Gary’s brother-in-law, who confirmed he had seen Gary the previous night. During this conversation, officers received more information suggesting Gary was no longer in the trailer currently surrounded by a SWAT team.
Not too far away, even more radio traffic suggested entering the trailer wasn’t going to result in the discovery of the fugitive.
Meanwhile, Troy Jurrens, who ran a business from his home nearby, was listening to the transmissions among law enforcement on a police scanner as they attempted to locate Gary. He stated: “someone announced on the radio that they were ‘going back to the trailer,’” to which another voice responded, “he’s not in the trailer.” Troy claimed, “The first voice answered back saying they were going back anyway.”
Deputies told Gareth they were going to try to enter the trailer. They did not mention they were planning to destroy the trailer to do this. They also did not ask for consent to enter the trailer, which was the property of Gareth Hamen. Cop-on-house violence ensued.
Not long after, the Sheriff authorized SWAT and the SRT to breach doors and windows on the Hamens’ mobile home. According to Wishard’s affidavit, the “tactical procedure [to secure the mobile home] is to create communication portholes in attempts to call out any subject or subjects that may be hiding inside.” If unsuccessful, gas munitions are used to flush out anyone inside. To create the communication portholes for the Hamens’ trailer, an armored vehicle pulled away the front stairs and deck, which were not attached to the mobile home or secured in the ground, and pushed in the front door with a ram. The second armored vehicle opened three portholes on the opposite side of the mobile home by breaking through windows and a sliding patio door, causing significant damage to the walls and the septic system.
Shortly after this procedure and before officers entered the mobile home, Gary was seen walking in the river near the Hamens’ residence. Law enforcement apprehended him at approximately 6:00 p.m.
Gareth Hamen sued, seeking compensation for his destroyed property. But there’s nothing in the law that says the government needs to pay for property it destroys — at least not in this fashion. While state law does allow property owners to seek compensation under the state constitution (in order to “ensure that individuals are not unfairly burdened by disproportionately bearing the costs of projects intended to benefit the public generally”), that clause doesn’t apply to cops destroying a house to find someone who wasn’t even in it. And it’s that way because this court has always said that’s the way it is.
[O]ur prior decisions have consistently applied the public use language in article VI, § 13 to both the takings and damages clauses, while rejecting a right to compensation under article VI, § 13 when the action involved the state’s police power.
That eliminates one of the allegations. But there’s still qualified immunity to consider. Unfortunately, the state Supreme Court says only one of those two allegations will survive.
There were two egregious Constitutional violations: the warrantless entry and the excessive destruction of personal property. Guess which one gets to go forward.
We conclude that, at a minimum, the Sheriff’s warrantless entry into the mobile home required an objectively reasonable belief that Gary was living in and present in the home at the time of entry.
Given that law enforcement’s last contact with Gary suggested he was no longer in the home, coupled with the fact that law enforcement had surrounded the mobile home for several hours without incident or any materialized threat from Gary, we cannot determine as a matter of law that exigent circumstances existed at the time the Sheriff decided to enter the mobile home.
Since there’s plenty of information on the record that suggests at least some officers involved had reason to believe Gary wasn’t in the home, there could not possibly be exigent circumstances to enter the home without a warrant to locate someone arrested a couple of hours later outside of the home. This goes back to the lower court for more development of the record.
Unfortunately, the court somehow doesn’t consider the damage caused during the search to be worthy of further examination. The officers are granted qualified immunity for the excessive force, even though the court says the entry itself may have been unconstitutional. Walking through a front door without a warrant is no good. Forcibly removing the door (along with windows, walls, part of the septic system, etc.) is just fine because no “reasonable officer” would have been aware that destroying a house to facilitate an illegal search was unconstitutional.
Regardless of whether the Sheriff used excessive force, the Hamens cannot prevail because they cannot show that the Sheriff’s use of force, even if it was excessive, violated a “clearly established” right.
The dissent says this makes no sense. If the entry was unlawful, everything that connected to that entry is similarly unlawful.
Regarding the § 1983 excessive force claim, as a starting premise, if the court determines on remand that the Sheriff’s entry into the mobile home was unlawful, then the nature and extent of force used is immaterial. In such case, the Sheriff is liable to the Hamens’ for the damage caused by the entry.
Furthermore, even if the entry is ultimately proven lawful, the damage caused was excessive, given the facts of the case.
Viewing the underlying facts in a light most favorable to the Hamens, it is questionable whether the use of “communication portals” of the sort made here were required given the small size of the trailer, particularly when considering that, up to the point of their decision to enter the trailer, law enforcement had been using a loudspeaker to attempt to communicate with Gary. Viewed in this light, the resulting damage to the trailer was intolerable in its intensity and unnecessary to execute the burglary warrant at issue.
That’s how it stands in South Dakota: law enforcement can destroy a house to engage in an illegal search without having to worry about paying for the damage. A single claim survives this trip through the court system, which likely isn’t going to produce a decision or settlement large enough to replace the home. And even if it does, it will come years after the damage was done.
Read more: techdirt.com