On Tuesday, Colorado courts ruled that the police department had no obligation to compensate a homeowner after his house was destroyed in a standoff between police and a man he’d never met.
In 2015, a shoplifter being pursued by police broke into the home of Leo Lech in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Neither Lech nor his son who had been renting the home from his father were present at the time, and neither had any connection to the suspect, but soon after he made his way inside, things became far more dangerous for law enforcement. The shoplifter was apparently armed, and after he opened fire on police as they closed in, a 19-hour standoff ensued that would culminate in the SWAT team using an armored vehicle and 40mm rounds to breach the home and bring the standoff to an end.
As a matter of course, law enforcement always holds the preservation of life above concerns about damage to property, but the damage to Lech’s home was more extensive than is often found in even similar standoffs. Law enforcement officials, however, have pointed out that each incident is different, and officers at the scene chose their tactics based on what they felt would best limit the risk to officers and nearby civilians.
Here is a local news report filmed during the standoff:
Soon after the standoff was over, Lech’s $580,000 home was marked for demolition, as the damage to the structure was deemed too significant to allow for repairs. Lech received $345,000 from an insurance claim, but according to his attorneys, that amount was nowhere near enough to cover the loss of the home, damage to personal property, and the expenses associated with finding and purchasing a new place for his son and family to live.
“It’s a miracle insurance covered any of it in the first place,” attorney Rachel Maxam told the Post. “Insurance is for fires, floods. There’s no ‘police blew up my house’ insurance.”
Here is another report filmed days later, after the house had been destroyed.
The damage wasn’t relegated to Lech’s home either. The house next door also suffered some $70,000 in damage from stray rounds during the firefight. None of that damage was covered by the homeowner’s insurance. The city did initially pay Lech $5,000 in temporary living assistance while his son, the son’s girlfriend, and her child looked for a new home. They ended up moving in Leo Lech, forcing the child to change schools as a result.
“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,” Lech said. “It destroyed our lives completely.”
The decision that Lech was owed nothing by the police department was first made in lower courts but was upheld this week by the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. While there has been little debate regarding the level of force the police used to end the standoff, this case has raised a number of questions about what happens when the police destroy property in the course of their duties. Lech ultimately lost a home, and according to his attorneys, hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result of a shoplifter breaking into his home while under police pursuit.
“The Courts, both State and Federal who have analyzed this matter, have consistently ruled in favor of the police actions taken to resolve this critical incident,” Greenwood Village said in a statement. “The Courts 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.”
Lech now plans to appeal this latest ruling and bring the case to the Supreme Court.
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