On June 3, 2015, a SWAT team utterly destroyed a home in Greenwood Village after suspected Walmart shoplifter Robert Seacat took refuge inside and refused to come out for nearly twenty hours. More than three years later, homeowner Leo Lech still hasn't received a dime for officers leaving the property in shambles, and his lawsuit against the community over the bizarre episode has been put on the legal slow track, with no immediate resolution in sight.
Attorney Rachel Maxam, who represents Lech, isn't giving up. After U.S. District Court judge Philip Brimmer ruled against her earlier this year, she appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.
And while Maxam is reluctant to characterize the feelings of Lech and his fellow plaintiffs — including son John Lech, who was living at the home with Anna Mumzhiyan, his then-significant other, and her nine-year-old, D.Z. — over the current situation, she concedes that "anybody would be frustrated at this point. They'd be frustrated that the government doesn't seem to care about them, and that the government has the power to create this kind of destruction to people's lives and then just walk away from it."
According to the original complaint, Seacat fled the Greenwood Village Walmart pursued by police on the day in question. He subsequently holed up at the Lech house, a location apparently chosen at random.
At the time, only D.Z. was home, but he managed to get away within minutes — and lucky thing, since all hell broke loose shortly thereafter. The tools used to dislodge Seacat, who was armed and reportedly fired at officers, included 40mm rounds, explosives, tear gas and flash-bang grenades, one of which was so badly thrown that it bounced back toward assorted cops, "forcing them to scatter," the suit notes.
In the end, a total of "68 cold chemical munitions and four hot gas munitions" were launched into the Lech home, by the lawsuit's count, with some of them getting stuck in the walls. Holes were also blasted through the windows and doors even before the deployment of a battering ram.
After Seacat was taken into custody, the complaint maintains, John, Anna and D.Z. were told the home sustained "some damage." That turned out to be a mammoth understatement. The residence wound up being condemned, and the three lost "all but a few of their personal belongings, including clothing, toys, basic household items, furniture, appliances and other personal effects" such as a treasured ring and a family heirloom that survived World War II in Italy but not the Greenwood Village SWAT team.
The suit also says the city failed to clear the scene of "projectiles and other hazards," including a "hypodermic needle containing an unknown dark substance" that nearly jabbed Leo Lech. (Another hypo was found later amid "a pile of debris.") Moreover, the lingering chemicals caused nausea and sinus congestion for Lech and company — property inspectors wore hazmat suits when they looked around — and the "two highly trained hunting dogs" kept on the property were so shell-shocked that it's doubtful they'll react to gunfire without freaking out ever again.
Because of these issues, John, Anna and D.Z. had to move to Leo's house in Douglas County, thirty miles south of their old place. The decision forced John to take a new job at a lower salary, since driving to his previous gig downtown would have required a two-hour commute, and D.Z. had to change schools and leave his friends behind, compounding the trauma he'd experienced.
Amid public sympathy for the home's residents, Greenwood Village eventually offered $5,000 in financial help — an incredibly inadequate sum, the suit contends. But from the beginning, attorney Maxam knew that increasing that figure would be difficult. After all, the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act restricts suits against municipalities such as Greenwood Village, and complaints against individuals can only succeed if they're found to have acted willfully and wantonly — which is why she refiled the suit in U.S. District Court after an initial filing in Arapahoe County Court.
In January, though, Judge Brimmer tossed some of the suit's claims and directed that others be heard by the county court — and while the case is preceding locally, Maxam is also appealing on the federal level.
"Our argument is that what happened was a takings under the Fifth Amendment," she explains. "Both the Colorado constitution and the U.S. constitution say the government can't take private property for public use without just compensation."
There's what Maxam characterizes as "an emergency exception" to this rule, but the U.S. Supreme Court cases that established it "are pretty extreme circumstances. One big case was the military destroying an oil refinery in the Philippines during World War II because it was about to be seized by enemy Japanese troops."
In Maxam's view, an unstable shoplifter doesn't rise to the level where the exception would be triggered: "This wasn't a great public emergency. This was a guy holed up in a house who refused to come out." But few state courts have weighed in on the concept in a scenario that is in any way comparable to the one involving Seacat. One in California basically stuck with the U.S. Supreme Court mandate, she reveals, while judges in Minnesota and Texas "said that whatever your public need to apprehend a criminal, it doesn't make it an exception to the takings clause."
On the local level, Maxam and attorneys for Greenwood Village have agreed to let the Arapahoe County Court come to a decision based on previously submitted motions and evidence. For Lech, success will turn on whether the city acted in a manner that was willful and wanton, "which might not be what most people would think," she admits. "The rough legal definition of 'willful and wanton' is if what they were doing was dangerous and showed a disregard to the rights and safety of others."
Victories in Arapahoe County Court or the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit could set future precedent, Maxam believes, even though "this is a very unique case."
Click to read the original Greenwood Village SWAT team lawsuit, as well as Judge Brimmer's order regarding the defendants' motion for summary judgement and the opening brief in the appeal to federal court.
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