Police Agree To Pay Woman $750,000 After Raiding Her House and Killing Her Dog Over an Unpaid Gas Bill
The case highlights the dangers of using SWAT teams for anything and everything.
According to the lawsuit, filed by one Angela Zorich, members of the St. Louis County Police Department's Tactical Response Unit executed a search warrant on Zorich's home in April 2014 following an anonymous tip that Zorich had had gas and electric service shut off at her house, the latter of which is a violation of the county's housing code.
During the raid, police arrested Zorich and shot and killed the Zorichs' dog, a 4-year-old pit bull named Kiya.
Police argued that Kiya charged them after they entered the home, giving them no choice but to shoot it. Zorich's complaint says that Kiya made no threatening movements, and that officers shot her immediately upon entering the home. Zorich's lawsuit says that her infant grandson was in the house at the time of the raid. It also claims that an officer held a gun to her adult son Isiah's head, threatening to "put three" in him if he spoke.
Following her arrest, Zorich's home, already under foreclosure, was condemned and the family was forced to move.
"Mr. Zorich had really lived this case for five years," said Jerry Dobson, one of the attorneys who represented Zorich, to Reason. "I think she was terribly traumatized by what had happened when the SWAT team came in and shot and killed her dog and pointed semi-automatic weapons at her children."
According to neighbors, police were frequently called to the Zorich residence over domestic disputes.
In the days leading up to the April 2014 raid, police—acting on a tip that gas and electrical service had been shut off—inspected the outside of Zorich's home, marking it as a "problem property." Zorich later called the county police to try and settle the "problem property" designation.
According to her lawsuit, Zorich had a testy exchange with one Robert Rinck, an officer assigned to the county's Problem Properties unit, during which she agreed to have code inspectors come look at the inside of her home. However, Zorich said she needed to speak with her husband first so that she could arrange a time when he could be there for the inspection as well.
"It's hard to imagine when anyone would run and get a search warrant and send in a SWAT team without first at least calling the homeowner and saying 'did you talk to your husband, let's arrange a time,'" says Dobson.
Yet that's exactly what happened. The next day Rinck requested and received a search warrant for her home. Within a few hours, police were kicking down Zorich's door.
Zorich's lawsuit claims that the SWAT raid on her home was completely unnecessary given that officers had felt safe inspecting the outside of her home just a few days ago, and that she had voluntarily agreed to open her door to county inspectors—negating the need for anyone to kick it down.
Zorich's lawsuit also argues that the minor nature of the violations she was accused of should have forestalled the SWAT raid.
Indeed, if St. Louis County police are empowered to knock down a door for minor code violations, they can effectively raid a house for anything, leaving property owners and residents with little assurance that their Fourth Amendment rights mean anything at all in St. Louis County.
The chaotic nature of these raids also increases the chances of violence, given that officers, homeowners, and their animals are all thurst suddenly into a very volatile situation involving lots of guns.
Making matters worse, says Dobson, is just how little oversight is exercised over officers requesting search warrants in these cases.
"You have no supervision, no one to look at this and say 'is this a good idea that we're sending a [tactical] team to serve a search warrant for a housing code violation,'" he says.
Dobson says he hopes that the settlement he won for his client will help prevent these kinds of instances from happening again, saying the case will hopefully be "something of a wake-up call to other departments that they need to get their house in order."
This article was updated to include comments from Jerry Dobson.