Government abuse

A SWAT Team Blew Up This Innocent Couple's Home and Left Them With the Bill. Was That Constitutional?

Mollie and Michael Slaybaugh are reportedly out over $70,000. The government says it is immune.


A federal court yesterday heard arguments in an appeal concerning an area of law that, while niche, has seen a streak of similarly situated plaintiffs pile up in recent years. At stake: When a SWAT team destroys an innocent person's property, should the owner be strapped with the bill?

There is what I would consider a commonsense answer to that question. But in a reminder that common sense does not always guide law and policy, that is not the answer reached by several courts across the U.S., where such victims are sometimes told that "police powers" provide an exception to the Constitution's promise to give just compensation when the government usurps property for public use.

It remains to be seen where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit will fall as it evaluates the complaint from Mollie and Michael Slaybaugh, who are reportedly on the hook for over $70,000 after a SWAT team destroyed much of their home in Smyrna, Tennessee.

In January 2022, Mollie Slaybaugh stepped outside her house and was greeted by a police officer with his gun drawn. She was informed that her adult son, James Jackson Conn—who did not live with her but had recently arrived to visit—was wanted for questioning concerning the murder of a police officer, which she says was news to her. Although she offered to speak to Conn and bring him out of her house, law enforcement declined to permit that, or to let her re-enter at all, so she went to stay at her daughter's house nearby.

The next day, police broke down the door and launched dozens of tear gas grenades into the Slaybaughs' home, laying waste to nearly everything in the house. Their insurance declined to assist them, as their policy—like many policies—does not cover damage caused by the government. Yet both Smyrna and Rutherford County said they were immune from helping as well.

But despite Mollie Slaybaugh's offer to coax Conn out sans tear gas, her complaint does not dispute that it was in the best interest of the community for law enforcement to do as they did that day. It merely contests the government's claim that innocent property owners should have to bear the financial burden by themselves when police destroy their homes in pursuit of a suspect.

"Law enforcement is a public good. Through our taxes, we pay for the training, equipment, and salaries of police officers. We pay to incarcerate criminals. We pay for a court system and public defenders," reads her complaint. "When the police destroy private property in the course of enforcing the criminal laws, that is simply another cost of law enforcement. Forcing random, innocent individuals to shoulder that cost alone would be as fair as conducting a lottery to determine who has to pay the police chief's salary each year."

That hypothetical is absurd. And yet the spirit of it is at the heart of several court decisions on the matter. That includes the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, which ruled last year that the Slaybaughs were not entitled to a payout because, in the court's view, the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment does not apply when the state seizes and destroys someone's property in the exercise of "police powers."

The Slaybaughs are unfortunately not alone. The notion that "police powers" immunize the government from liability is what doomed Leo Lech's lawsuit, which he filed after a SWAT team did so much damage to his home—in pursuit of a suspect that broke in and had no relation to the family—that it had to be demolished. In 2020, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Similar claims are continuing to accumulate. The city of Los Angeles refused to compensate Carlos Pena after a SWAT team destroyed his North Hollywood print shop in pursuit of a suspect who barricaded himself inside, and the government in McKinney, Texas, turned away Vicki Baker after police ruined her home and much of its contents while, again, trying to catch a fugitive. After a legal odyssey of sorts, Baker was able to secure a judgment from a federal jury—though that was ultimately overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which ruled there was a "necessity" exception to the Takings Clause. Most recently, the local government in South Bend, Indiana, rejected Amy Hadley's pleas for help after police mutilated her home in search of a suspect she'd never met and who'd never been to her home. An officer's botched investigation led law enforcement to her house, and she has been forced to pay the price of that blunder. Accountability should not just be for the little people.

"The plain text of the Just Compensation Clause contains no exemptions for the police power, for public necessity, or for damage done by law enforcement. And the government bears the burden of establishing that any such exception is grounded in our nation's history and tradition," Jeffrey Redfern, an attorney with the Institute for Justice representing the Slaybaughs, told the 6th Circuit yesterday. "But the government hasn't even tried to meet that burden. Instead it asks this court to blindly follow decisions from other jurisdictions—decisions whose reasoning the government isn't really defending."

In some sense, the government is throwing what it can at the wall to see what sticks. And a fair amount of nonadhesive material is successfully latching on—an exception to the laws of nature that few entities other than the government could reasonably hope to enjoy.