Who's Responsible When Police Damage Property?

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As police face intense scrutiny for the deaths of American citizens under questionable circumstances, another controversy surrounding officers' conduct is brewing in the shadows. In cities across the nation, police are causing extensive damage to land, homes, and businesses while in the pursuit of suspects and leaving property owners wondering who's on the hook for repairs. If you've got a bill for property destruction caused by law enforcement officers, here's what you need to know about getting it paid.

Was There a Warrant or Not?

One of the determining factors in whether the city, state, or federal government will pay for the damage they cause to your property is if the cops have a search warrant and what kind. If the police have what's called a no-knock warrant, then you may be stuck eating the cost of the repairs.

A no-knock warrant lets police enter a home or business without notifying the resident or business owner beforehand. This type of warrant is typically issued when there is cause to believe evidence may be destroyed or the risk of injury will increase if the police announce themselves to the people inside the home or business.

Unfortunately for property owners, this often means police are given wide leeway to enter the property by any means necessary, which includes using battering rams to knock down doors or breaking windows. Even if a key is available to unlock the door, the cops are generally not required to use it if doing so will bring about an undesirable outcome (e.g. the perpetrator hears the key being used and gets a weapon).

The result is the law enforcement agency often escapes liability for the damage they cause executing the warrant, as long as the damage is considered reasonable. For instance, in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled against a homeowner who sued local police for damage the officers caused during a drug raid. The cops used a battering ram to break down the door, even though the home owner offered the key. Since the officers didn't take any property or act in a negligent manner, the agency was found not liable for the $5,000 bill incurred by the homeowner.

However, even if the cops have a regular warrant or no warrant all, they may still escape liability if they have reasonable cause to damage the property. In Colorado, the local SWAT team caused $250,000 worth of damage to a person's home while trying to apprehend an armed shoplifting suspect who had broken into the house to evade capture. The homeowner's insurance policy will cover the structure, but it doesn't appear the renter and property owner will get any money for the furnishings and personal items destroyed by the cops' actions.

Possibility of Recovering Damages

There are some instances, however, when the police are liable for damages done to property during the execution of their duties. If the damage is caused by misconduct or negligence, law enforcement agencies will often pay any related claims; though you may have to jump through hoops to get the money.

One homeowner tells the story of police breaking his security gate and door frame while executing a warrant. The problem was, the person they were looking for had not lived in the home since 2007, and the current owners had no connection to the individual. The agency's policy states it will pay for damage that result from misinformation or erroneous judgment. However, the homeowner's claim was bounced around between departments before being denied. It took the homeowners contacting the mayor and police chief before the agency paid the bill as agreed.

The police may also be liable for damages if they result from the use of excessive force. For instance, if the police tear down walls while looking for a suspect, they could be held liable for the damage if there was no reason to believe the person would be hiding inside them.

Another way a law enforcement agency may be required to reimburse you for damage is if it seizes part of the property using eminent domain laws. This is when the government takes private property for public use. For example, if the crime lab takes the front door of your retail store because there are bullets in it, it must compensate you for that loss.

Most cities require that you submit a claim for damages to the appropriate agency first, and the claim must be denied before you can move forward with other legal remedies. Depending on where you live, there may be a time limit. For instance, you may only have six months from the time the property damage occurs to file a claim or you'll lose the right to recover damages forever.

If your claim is denied or the agency takes too long to reach a decision, you can then file a personal injury lawsuit against the agency for the damages the officers caused. As noted previously, though, whether or not you'll prevail will depend on the circumstances surrounding the damages. It's essential that you work with a personal injury lawyer on a legal strategy that will help you recover the money you're entitled to.