When Vicki Baker cleared out her home in McKinney, Texas, in 2020, she filled two 40-foot dumpsters with her belongings. It wasn’t the way she’d pictured emptying the house as she prepared to begin retirement in Montana. But there was little else to be done with her tear-gas stained items after a SWAT team careened through her fence, detonated explosives to blow her garage door off its hinges, smashed several windows, and drove a BearCat armored vehicle through her front door to apprehend a fugitive that had barricaded himself inside.
A federal jury last week decided that Baker is entitled to $59,656.59 for the trouble. It’s both a controversial and surprising decision. Normally, people like Baker get nothing.
In July 2020, Wesley Little arrived at Baker’s house with a 15-year-old girl he’d kidnapped. Little had previously worked for Baker as a handyman, though she had fired him about a year and a half earlier after her daughter, Deanna Cook, expressed that something may be awry. Cook answered Little at the door that day; having seen him on recent news reports, she left the premises and called the police.
The girl was released unharmed. But Little refused to exit the home, so a SWAT team arrived and began to tear the house down around him in a process known as “shock and awe.”
They then kindly left Baker with the bill. “I’ve lost everything,” she told me in March 2021. “I’ve lost my chance to sell my house. I’ve lost my chance to retire without fear of how I’m going to make my regular bills.” Those bills include treatment for stage 3 breast cancer.
Yet the only thing perhaps more absurd than a jury having to force the government’s hand in recompensing her is that Baker almost did not have the privilege to bring her case before one. Federal courts in similar cases have ruled that the government can usurp “police powers” to destroy your property and avoid having to pay it back under the Takings Clause of the 5th Amendment, which is supposed to provide a remedy for such circumstances.
After the ordeal, Baker sought that remedy through her home insurance, which stipulated that they are not on the hook if it is the government’s fault. And though the government didn’t deny being at fault, per se, they did deny that Baker was a victim, sending her on her way with a ravaged home, thousands of dollars in destroyed personal possessions, and a dog that went deaf and blind from the chaos that July day.
In November of last year, Baker’s luck began to turn. A federal judge denied the city of McKinney’s motion to dismiss her case. In April, that same jurist, Judge Amos L. Mazzant III of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, described the interpretation of the law barring Baker from suing as “untenable.” And last week, the jury handed down their ruling. The city may appeal, which will delay any payout.
In coming to his decision, Mazzant invoked another unfortunate case: that of the Lech family, who had their $580,000 home ruined by a SWAT team as they pursued an unrelated shoplifter who broke in. Greenwood Village, Colorado, did more for them than McKinney would do for Baker, forking over all of $5,000. A federal court ruled that the family could not sue, and the Supreme Court declined to take up the case.
“Even though a number of federal courts have gone the wrong way on this issue, they’ve done so with very cursory analysis,” says Jeffrey Redfern, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm shepherding Baker’s case. He says this new ruling is different and should “be the one that everyone is looking at” as similar situations continue to pop up.
It does not set a precedent, however. “In this case, we put the city claims agent on the stand,” notes Redfern, “and she said, ‘Yep, I denied the claim, and I deny every claim like this, and if this happened tomorrow I would deny it again.’” Unfortunately for people like Vicki Baker, this will continue to be a familiar story.