When Police Wreck Your Property and Leave You With the Bill

October 13th, 2023 4:17 PM

What happens when police, trying to catch a bad guy, destroy your house?

This happens surprisingly often.

In my new video, Los Angeles print shop owner Carlos Pena describes how a man running from police knocked him to the ground and then ran inside his shop.

“I didn’t know what was going on until I saw the SWAT team showing up,” says Pena. They launched “31 or 32 rounds of tear gas into my shop.”

When the SWAT team finally broke in, the suspect had already escaped.

When Pena was finally allowed to return to his shop, he discovered that the SWAT team’s tear gas had wrecked all his equipment.

Pena assumed they would reimburse him.

Federal marshals gave him a form to fill out about damages. “I got a little happy! ... I itemized everything that was damaged.”

But the marshals rejected his list. They said it was because he didn’t include a precise total. So he added it up and resubmitted.

“A couple months later I got another letter of denial,” says Pena. This time, the marshals simply said they “were not responsible” for the damage. They told him to pursue his claim with the city.

He did. But the city told him their SWAT team is “immune.”

Pena thought he’d finally get paid when “the new mayor of Los Angeles’ assistant called (and said), ‘The mayor is very interested in helping you.’”

Half a year later, the mayor still hasn’t helped.

Pena tried the city council. “They just gave me numbers to call. When you call, they refer me to somebody else. It’s unbearable.”

It is. A city destroys his business, and then ignores him.

We asked Los Angeles officials for a comment. They didn’t respond.

An attorney at the Institute for Justice, Jeffrey Redfern, says what happened to Pena is unconstitutional. He’s taken Pena’s case for free.

“But police sometimes do need to wreck a house to get the bad guy,” I tell Redfern.

“Absolutely,” he replies. “We’re not suggesting that police did anything wrong. But if they destroy property, they must compensate innocent owners. Then the city can decide what policies it wants to adopt.”

Maybe next time they’ll shoot in a little less tear gas?

“When they get to offload these costs to random, unlucky individuals,” says Redfern, “they don’t have to do that kind of cost benefit analysis.”

But the Institute for Justice lost a similar police destruction case in Colorado.

“The city did not compensate the owner at all,” says Redfern. “It’s absolutely crazy. The court said because law enforcement is doing this for the public good, it wouldn’t be fair to force them to compensate people. But that’s the entire point of the Takings Clause!”

The Takings Clause is the part of the Fifth Amendment that says government can’t take or destroy private property without “just compensation.”

“If the government takes your house to build a road or a school,” explains Redfern, “you get compensation because it’s not fair for you to bear that burden alone.”

But Pena and his family must bear the burden of his lost business alone. He now works out of his garage, but he’s lost most of his customers. His wife had to go back to work as a house cleaner to try to make ends meet.

“It sickens me to know that this can happen to you when you are doing everything right,” says Pena.

It sickens me, too. Please join me in donating to this GoFundMe page for Pena.

The Institute for Justice says it will keep suing on behalf of people like Pena.

“We want to make it clear,” says Redfern, “When police destroy innocent people’s property, they have to pay for the damage that they did.”