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EDITORIAL: Come on in, officer — and wreck the place, while you’re here

Shaniz West agreed to let the police enter her home to make an arrest. They trashed it. A federal appeals court told her “too bad.” Now the Supreme Court has the opportunity to right this clear injustice.

The facts surrounding Ms. West’s predicament are not in dispute. In 2014, Ms. West returned to her Caldwell, Idaho, home to find four local police officers. They were looking for her ex-boyfriend, Fabian Salinas, who was wanted for violent gang activity. Ms. West told the officers she didn’t know whether Salinas was inside, so the cops asked permission to enter the home in an effort to locate and arrest him. According to reports, Ms. West gave the officers her house keys and left with a friend.

Instead of entering the home, however, the police called in a SWAT team, which used shotguns and other equipment to launch a tear gas attack through the windows and garage door. The resulting damage ran into the tens of thousands of dollars and left the home uninhabitable for months.

“West’s personal belongings and the home itself were saturated with tear gas,” a judge with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted. “Broken glass littered the floor and the walls and ceiling had gaping holes from contact with the tear gas canisters.”

Ms. West sought compensation for the destruction, but her case was rejected by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit. The 2-1 majority held that the police were covered under a doctrine known as “qualified immunity,” which protects government officials from being sued for acting in their official capacity unless they clearly violate an established constitutional right. The majority further held that Ms. West should have known that by letting the authorities enter her home, she was also consenting to potential damage.

The case has similarities to a 2015 Colorado incident in which the police destroyed an innocent man’s house after a suspected thief broke into the home while attempting to avoid arrest. In that instance, too, a federal appeals court eventually ruled the homeowner was out of luck when he attempted to sue to recover damages.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Fifth Amendment stops the government from taking private property “for public use without just compensation.” Is it truly reasonable to suggest that an owner’s consent to search a property also implicitly grants the authorities permission to do extensive damage? Is it truly just to argue that the authorities have no financial responsibility if, while carrying out their duties, they destroy private property?

The Institute for Justice has taken up Ms. West’s case and this week petitioned the Supreme Court for review. Let’s hope the justices seize the chance to rein in the extreme effects of “qualified immunity.”

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