Police Searches And Damage Redress

Imagine that, for the sake of argument, the police are actively pursuing the mysterious disappearance of a Mr. John Smith.

For reasons which escape me right now, their persistent enquiries have led them to the door of my home (the imaginatively titled Chez Guevara). They have a warrant to search the place, and they use it in a manner which leaves nothing untouched.

My property is trashed. My wardrobes and storage cupboards are taken apart. Ornaments are broken in the process. Floorboards are removed and discarded carelessly in the front garden. My computer is seized, therefore my scholarly paper provisionally entitled The Mating Rituals of Short-Clawed European Otters in a Negative Celsius Temperature Scenario will not reach the publisher within the timetable laid down by him.

There is, in short, substantial damage to my home, its contents and my academic reputation.

Several possibilities exist, like so;

  1. I am totally innocent of any crime, especially this one, so naturally the police find nothing on the premises to incriminate me.

  2. I am guilty of the disappearance of Mr. Smith but I have cunningly concealed his corpse in the false compartment of my fridge/freezer. (It’s a big one, bought specifically for the purpose.) The police don’t find the body but, exercising reasonable caution, I subsequently remove it from its hidey hole and transfer it to a more remote and inaccessible location.

  3. I am guilty of the disappearance of Mr. Smith and, to my great annoyance, the police discover his body in the fridge. I make a mental note to buy a new one (no-one wants to use a refrigerator which has recently contained a dead body) before being arrested and charged with all sorts of crimes.

Fortunately I have a good barrister and he gets me off on a series of technicalities. I am legally innocent of everything connected with this case.

  1. I am guilty of the disappearance of Mr. Smith and the police find the body. I am arrested, charged, remanded in custody, brought to trial, found guilty (even my barrister can’t get me out of this one) and thrown unceremoniously into the less than luxurious surroundings of a prison cell.

My question is this:

a) In the first 3 examples wherein I am not guilty, not charged or found not guilty, who is financially responsible for putting my house back in its usual pristine condition. I would guess that the responsibility is not mine but I would appreciate confirmation or denial.

b) In example 4, where I am as guilty as hell both legally and otherwise, is the answer any different. Does the fact that I am caught bang to rights with a body in my fridge dictate that I must pay for any damage caused by the police to my property in their efforts to bring me to justice.

Answers may vary by jurisdiction but any input is welcomed.

Many thanks.

I am not a lawyer, but my understanding is that the police (and beyond them the government) have no liability as long as their activities were related to performing the search. So if they tore apart your computer to look inside it, you’re out of luck. If, on the other hand, they took it up on the roof and threw it down to the sidewalk to watch it smash, you might conceivably have a case.

But assuming the likelihood of you not being able to prove the police acted unprofessionally, I believe you’re reduced to submitting a claim to your insurance company. Expanding on my already tenuous non-professional knowledge, I believe many insurers exclude claims based on damage caused by the customer’s commission of a crime. So most likely they would deny any claim that resulted from the police searching your residence if you had in fact killed somebody - their logic would be that you decided to commit a crime so you’re responsible for any damage that occurs as a result of the subsequent investigation.

And I just noticed that you live in the UK. My answer was based on my knowledge of American law and things may be different where you are.

"Officers who obtain and serve search warrants may be held civilly liable for violation of constitutional rights if (1) information contained in an affidavit in support of a search warrant is not truthful, because of either deliberate or reckless dishonesty; (2) residential units in a multi-unit dwelling are searched without probable cause; (3) detention of occupants who are present during service of a search warrant is accomplished in either an unreasonable manner or for a period of time longer than that which is reasonable; or (4) real or personal property is unnecessarily destroyed during execution of a warrant…
In order to find that the officers, SVPD, and the City are entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law, a court must find either that the constitutional right alleged to have been violated was not clearly established or, if the right was clearly established, that a reasonable officer could have believed the alleged conduct was lawful.

In this case, plaintiffs alleged violation of their Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure. Thus, the questions to be decided on appeal was whether, under the facts and in the context of this case, the right was clearly established and, if so, whether a reasonable officer could have believed the alleged conduct was lawful…
After finding that the officers acted properly in obtaining the warrant, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the officers, SVPD, and the City were entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law and remanded to the District Court with instructions to enter summary judgment, as to this claim, in their favor…
Next, the plaintiffs alleged that officers violated their constitutional rights by conducting the search in an unreasonable manner, in particular by callously and needlessly ransacking the residence and destroying property.

It is clearly established that officers executing a search warrant occasionally “must damage property in order to perform their duty.” Dalia v. United States (1979) 441 U.S. 238, 258. It is only unnecessarily destructive behavior, beyond that necessary to execute a warrant effectively, that violates the Fourth Amendment. Liston v. County of Riverside (9th Cir. 1997) 120 F.3d 965, 975.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s denial of summary judgment because Iris Mena testified at her deposition that she saw an officer kick a door that was already opened while saying, “I like to destroy these kinds of materials, it’s cool.” Such conduct, if true, is unnecessarily destructive…Officers obtaining search warrants should verify, to the extent possible, information that is used to obtain such warrants. Furthermore, officers should set forth in search warrant affidavits not only facts that will compel a magistrate to conclude that probable cause to issue the warrant exists, but should also include information that corroborates these underlying facts. Additionally, officers should also include in their affidavits known information that might lessen the likelihood that a magistrate will conclude that probable cause exists, as any subsequent judicial finding that the affiant officer was either deliberately or recklessly dishonest might subject the officer to civil liability as well as jeopardize any resulting criminal prosecution.

Implicit in all search warrants is judicial authorization to detain persons who are present at the place to be searched when a search warrant is executed. This judicial authorization to detain persons should, however, be exercised in a reasonable manner and detentions should last only for a reasonable period of time.

Finally, while is lawful to destroy property when it is necessary to do so, indiscriminate destruction of property may subject officers to civil liability."

US law.

Another take on the topic: http://www.slate.com/id/2142451/

Also, the Master speaks here on police commandering of cars, which raises somewhat similar issues: http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mcommandeer.html

“Commandeering” :smack:

I told you not to call me Master in public. :wink:

And here is the thread where we discussed that staff report: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=369025

Oops! Should’ve looked more closely. Your Adamsian air of authority, mixed with orneriness, threw me… :smiley:

Just watch out if the police bring a K9 unit in on the search. Because then your insurance company will disallow your claim by saying any damge was an act of dog.

Some jurisdictions compensate those whose property is damaged by police during a search or otherwise. See, e.g., http://www.slate.com/id/2142451/

Most court that have considered claims that reimbursement is constitutionally required have rejected that argument. E.g., Eggleston v. Pierce County, 148 Wash.2d 760, 64 P.3d 618 (2003): http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=wa&vol=2003_sc/712964ma1&invol=3 (no compensation when plaintiff’s home was rendered uninhabitable by the execution of a criminal search warrant and preservation order); Sullivant v. Oklahoma City, 1997 OK 68, 940 P.2d 220: http://www.oscn.net/applications/oscn/DeliverDocument.asp?citeID=20463 (state constitution did not require compensation for taking when landlord’'s building was damaged during lawful search); McCoy v. Sanders, 113 Ga. App. 565, 148 S.E.2d 902 (1966): http://www.lawskills.com/case/ga/id/64948/ (no taking when police drained plaintiff’s fishpond searching for body). None of these cases involved damage to property belonging to the guilty party. So . . . .

Obviously the claim of the guilty party would be even weaker than that of an innocent bystander.