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Leo Brutsche offered officers keys when they arrived at his property in Kent with a warrant to search for

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State Supremes Say Cops Can Bust Down Your Door

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Leo Brutsche offered officers keys when they arrived at his property in Kent with a warrant to search for meth, a production operation, and his son, James Brutsche.

James wasn’t so gracious, running for a mobile home and barricading himself in. The multi-jurisdictional Valley Special Response Team declined Leo’s offer and broke down a glass door with a battering ram. An officer later testified that breaking down the door was necessary as police “did not know if James Brutsche was arming himself or rallying unaccounted-for individuals in the mobile home to engage police in a fight, and to minimize the likelihood that evidence was being destroyed.”

No drugs, nor evidence of drugs, were found during the July 2003 search. Though one year later, James died in a warehouse methlab fire in Kent.

Leo Brutsche did nearly $5,000 in repairs to the buildings on his property after the cavalry left, turned around and sued King County and the City of Kent, both of whom had officers in the raid. The county was eventually let out of the suit, and at an arbitrator awarded Brutsche $2,400 plus court costs.

The city fought the award. And in 2005, a King County Superior Court judge not only reversed the decision, but threw the case out completely, giving over $4,000 in court costs to Kent. Brutsche appealed up to the state high court, with backup from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Institute for Justice.

Today the state Supremes ruled 5 to 4 that police were justified in deciding that James posed a threat and breaking in property doors, making it impossible for Brutsche to collect on any damages.

Under state law, a warrant not only gives police the right to go on your property, but to do a certain amount of damage necessary to execute that warrant. In an earlier Snohomish County case, cops not only broke in doors, but trashed the inside, scattering of a house looking for evidence. In that case the damage was excessive and not necessary for executing the warrant, the court ruled.

But in Brutsche’s case, Justice Barbara Madsen wrote for the majority: “on the evidence submitted, the officers did not exceed the scope of their privilege to be on the property to execute the search warrant.”

“The decision certainly will have an effect on Washington property owners,” Institute for Justice attorney Michael Bindas says. “When police damage the property of an innocent person during the execution of a search warrant.”

Two dissenting opinions were also entered with the court decisions, authored by justices Richard Sanders and Tom Chambers. “Under these facts a reasonable jury could certainly find using a battering ram to destroy doors rather than using an available key was unnecessary,” Sanders writes, while noting that the majority was correct in opining that the law does allow for some damage if necessary for executing a warrant.

Chambers agrees with Sanders but is far less politic in his concurring dissent where he states: “I write separately to stress that there is nothing more reprehensible to the law than an agent of the government causing unnecessary and unreasonable damage to the person or property of a person while performing--or purporting to perform--a government function.” He goes on to say that the state should be forced to prove that the force it used was necessary--in a jury trial.

Update:

Unlike the Institute for Justice, the ACLU wasn't backing Brutsche so much as pushing for recognition of the right to sue cops that are excessively destructive under state negligence laws. The majority opinion upheld the right to sue, but only under trespassing laws, ACLU spokesperson Doug Honig explains. The civil rights advocacy group is pleased that the court at least upheld the right to sue, he says, though disappointed that the court didn't give Brutsche the chance to seek redress.

“We hope that this will serve as a deterrent to police from unnecessarily destroying property when they serve warrants in the future, knowing that they could get sued if they aren’t careful," Honig says. "We got the point recognized that we wanted to, unfortunately it was not applied to Brutsche, but it should help people in the future.”

 
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