A SWAT team destroyed an innocent woman’s house after a fugitive barricaded himself inside. Last week a federal court ruled that she can sue the government for damages.
In July 2020, Wesley Little—who Vicki Baker had terminated as her handyman about a year and a half prior—arrived at Baker’s home in McKinney, Texas. Baker’s daughter answered. Recognizing him from news reports that he was wanted for the abduction of a 15-year-old girl, she left the premises and called the police.
SWAT agents soon arrived. They set off explosives to open the garage entryway, detonated tear gas grenades inside the building, ran over Baker’s fence with an armored vehicle, and ripped off her front door, despite being given a garage door opener, a code to the back gate, and a key to the home. The house was unlivable when they were through.
She sued. So the city asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit.
“In its pursuit of the fugitive and pursuant to its police powers, Baker alleges the City caused significant economic damage—over $50,000—to her home. Then, the City refused to compensate her for the damage,” writes Judge Amos L. Mazzant III of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. “Baker has alleged damage to her private property—and the City’s refusal to compensate for such damage—that plausibly amounts to a Fifth Amendment violation.”
The fact that this needed to be spelled out is a commentary on how difficult it has become to get meaningful accountability from the government. At the center of Baker’s case is the Takings Clause of the 5th Amendment, which is supposed to provide recourse to those who had their property taken or destroyed by the government. But this protection has been weakened by a series of court cases creating carveouts for actions taken under the broad scope of “police powers.”
“They’re forcing unlucky individuals to shoulder the burden of doing something that’s good for society,” Jeffrey Redfern, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm representing Baker, told me in March. “Taking dangerous criminals off the street is good for society. If the city decides that it really needs to put a road through your house, that might be the right call. It might be something the community really needs. But that doesn’t justify making one unlucky owner bear the cost of doing something that’s good for everyone.”
It’s not unheard of for SWAT teams to destroy innocent peoples’ homes in pursuit of fugitives unrelated to them or because the police didn’t verify they had the correct address. The Supreme Court rejected a case brought by a Colorado family who tried to sue after SWAT agents mutilated their $580,000 home while pursuing a shoplifting suspect. And a group of more than two dozen police officers received qualified immunity after throwing explosives into the wrong man’s home during a drug raid—meaning the 78-year-old victim, Onree Norris, could not sue them.
Baker will likely still have to overcome an appeal from the city. But if her suit meets a more fortunate fate, she may recuperate some of the financial costs incurred as she battles stage 3 cancer and tries to leave the state for retirement. Yet some things will not be replaceable. An antique doll collection was damaged by tear gas, for example. Worse yet, her daughter’s dog was left deaf and blind.
“I’ve lost everything,” Baker told Reason last March. “I’ve lost my chance to sell my house. I’ve lost my chance to retire without fear of how I’m going to make my regular bills.”