Wednesday, July 3, 2019

St. Louis Co. pays $750,000 to settle lawsuit over SWAT raid that included fatal shooting of family dog -- reminding us of military-style police force we faced in eviction that ended with my wife's shattered arm

Angela Zorich home in St. Louis County

A Missouri woman's federal lawsuit against St. Louis County and four of its police officers, over a SWAT raid of her home that included the shooting death of the family dog, settled yesterday for $750,000.

The case was heard in front of a jury, and in the end, the county opted to settle with the Zorich family for $750,000. After the county agreed to settle, Angela Zorich stated:

"They know what they did wrong. That money sends a message. The trial showed exactly what happened.”

According to press reports, officers appeared at Angela Zorich's house wearing body armor and carrying M4 carbine rifles. Why the overwhelming show of force. Zorich had failed to pay her gas bill. No kidding -- and no wonder St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger wrote the following in a June 25 article about the early stages of the trial, which seemed to focus around Kiya, a 4-year-old pit bull that was fatally shot:

Kiya's dead, but this case isn't really about her.

In a court case that's expected to last about a week and a half, what will really be on trial is the militarization of the St. Louis County Police Department.

That department, Zorich's attorneys said in opening statements, has a policy that it's tactical operations unit -- the SWAT team -- executes all search warrants, even when just checking on a house where the gas bill has gone unpaid. Applying massive force in such a case is a violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, said attorney Nicole Matlock (of the St. Louis firm Dobson and Goldberg).

"What could possibly have justified (Officer Robert Rinck) deciding to call in the (tactical operations) team?" she asked jurors.

St. Louis County is not the only part of Missouri with a militarization problem in its police force. The Zorich raid, in April 2014, is reminiscent of our experience with the Greene County Sheriff's Office (GCSO), which raided our duplex apartment in September 2015 for an eviction that was unlawful on at least 10 grounds -- including the fact that no judge had signed off on a final order, allowing the eviction to proceed. The only such document in the case file is described multiple times as "interlocutory," which means non-final -- especially since a court date already had been set to consider various issues raised in the case.

X-ray of Carol Shuler's broken arm.
Without authority from a judge, six to eight Greene County officers (including Sheriff Jim Arnott) burst into our home, wearing body armor, and Deputy Scott Harrison pointed an assault rifle directly at my head. Deputy Jeremy Lynn grabbed my wife Carol, slammed her face-first up against a wall and pounded her head multiple times into the wall. The frantic episode ended with an officer wearing a blue shirt -- we call him "Mr. Blue Shirt" because the GCSO has refused to identify him -- slamming Carol butt-first to the ground and yanking on both of her arms in a violent upward and backward motion.

Our pet cat survived the raid unscathed, but Carol was not so fortunate. Her left arm was shattered just above the elbow in what is called a comminuted fracture (breaks in two or more places) -- the kind of injury normally associated with trauma, such as a car wreck. Carol needed roughly eight hours of trauma surgery at Cox South Medical Center, during which a number of complications had her life on shaky ground.

As if our experience was not filled with enough outrage, Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson filed criminal charges against CAROL -- claiming she had assaulted a law-enforcement officer, even though the officer in question (Jeremy Lynn) admitted he initiated contact with Carol, which means, under Missouri law, she could not have committed the alleged offense. For good measure Greene County Judge Jerry Harmison allowed officers to unload a cornucopia of false, inconsistent, and perjurious statements to find her guilty -- punishing her with what amounted to a $10 fine and a suspended imposition of sentence (SIS), which means the whole sham eventually should be cleared from her record.

Angela Zorich
We have a pretty good idea of the terror inflicted on the Zorich family, and we are in the early stages of a federal civil-rights lawsuit -- not only against Greene County and its officers, but against landlord Trent Cowherd, and at least two lawyers (Craig Lowther and David Shuler, my brother) who helped orchestrate the whole thing.

As for the Zorich case, how could an unpaid utility bill turn into a matter for the police? The best explanation we can find comes from a court ruling that was issued just before the case headed to trial last week. Writes U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia L. Cohen (citations omitted):

In early 2014, Plaintiff lived in a single-family home with her husband, three adult sons, a six-year-old daughter, and three dogs, including a pit bull named Kiya. At that time, (Robert) Rinck was an officer with the St. Louis County Police Department's Problem Properties Unit ("PPU"). Plaintiff's neighbor, who was an investigator for Laclede Gas Company and an acquaintance of Rinck, had called the police department several times to complain about Plaintiff's dogs barking. On April 23, 2014, the neighbor called Rinck to inform him that the gas company had suspended Plaintiff's natural gas service.

Before visiting Plaintiff's residence, Rinck "ran" Plaintiff's address in the County's Crime Matrix program to determine whether any residents of the home had arrest/criminal histories or outstanding arrest warrants. Rinck's search revealed that Plaintiff's husband, Michael, and her three sons, Joseph, Zacariah, and Isaiah, had criminal histories, which included arrests for violent offenses, and that Plaintiff and her sons had outstanding arrest warrants. Rinck also reviewed a list of all calls for police service to Plaintiff's address, including a report that Plaintiff's pit bull attacked a neighbor's dog.

Kiya, the pit bull
On Friday, April 25, 2014, Rinck and two problem property specialists from the County's Department of Public Works went to Plaintiff's house for the purpose of investigating whether the property was safe for occupancy. The County Police Department's other problem properties officer, Officer Rehagan, met Rinck and the property specialists at the residence. When Rinck knocked on the front door and loudly announced himself, the door opened inward. Someone inside the house slammed and locked the front door, and Rinck heard a male voice shout, "fuck you." Rinck knocked several more times, but no one answered the door.

Officer LaChance responded to Rinck's call for assistance and informed Rinck that he was familiar with the Zorich family. According to LaChance, residents of Plaintiff's house were "hostile and combative with the police." Rinck also spoke to one of Plaintiff's neighbors, who complained about Plaintiff's barking dogs and the "loud and offensive language and behavior of members of the Zorich family" and informed Rinck that an infant and a four-or five-year-old girl might reside there. The neighbor allowed Rinck and the housing specialists to enter his backyard for the purpose of inspecting Plaintiff's property, and they observed that Plaintiff's deck "appeared to be in imminent danger of collapse." Rink also observed the lock on the natural gas meter. Before leaving the property, Rinck placed a problem properties notification sticker on Plaintiff's window.

Later that day, Plaintiff "googled" the PPU and found a phone number, which she called.  The first woman Plaintiff spoke to informed her "there was no indication of any issues at her address in the computer" and directed her to an employee named Kim. Plaintiff left Kim two messages requesting return telephone calls.

Plaintiff called the number again the following Monday, April 28, 2014, and spoke to someone who instructed her to call either Rehagan or Rinck directly. Plaintiff first called Rehagan, who informed her that the PPU needed to inspect the interior of her house because they had received an anonymous report that her electricity and gas were off. Plaintiff replied that only her gas was off and, when Rehagan insisted that her electricity was off, Plaintiff said "That's bullshit," and Rehagan terminated the call. Plaintiff called Rehagan back to apologize, and Rehagan advised her to call Rinck.

Plaintiff then called Rinck, who informed Plaintiff that he was investigating her home for lack of gas service and that someone in her house had said "fuck you" to him. Rinck did not mention the condition of the exterior deck. When Rinck advised Plaintiff that he wished to "meet at the property and conduct an inspection," she responded, "Well, I'll have to talk to my husband." Rinck told Plaintiff that "the investigation would continue."

How does an unpaid gas bill become a matter for police? Why is it up to cops to help determine if a property is safe for occupancy? Why do they need a SWAT team to make such a determination? How in the hell does any of this happen?

Thankfully, the Zorich family received $750,000 worth of justice for the ordeal. In my view, the figure should have been higher.


Anonymous said...

Another example of truth being stranger than fiction. I could never imagine that in 2019 an American would have cops raiding her home over an unpaid utility bill. Unreal.

Anonymous said...

Missouri is starting to make Alabama look like a forward-looking place.

Anonymous said...

I wish this had gone to a jury. I think they really would have lowered the boom on the cops.

Anonymous said...

That's a beautiful dog. So sorry she had to lose her life because of cop stupidity.

Anonymous said...

@10:28 --

I agree. I think the financial figure should have been much higher. I'm not sure this amount inflicts sufficient punishment upon the thugs.

Anonymous said...

"On Friday, April 25, 2014, Rinck and two problem property specialists from the County's Department of Public Works went to Plaintiff's house for the purpose of investigating whether the property was safe for occupancy."

Why on earth is a matter for cops to determine if a property was safe for occupancy? What expertise do they have on issues like that?

Anonymous said...

Neither Ms. Zorich nor her dog look all that problematic or threatening.

legalschnauzer said...

@11:21 --

My experience has been that involving cops in anything almost always makes matters worse. They are not problem solvers; they are problem creators. Many of them can't even handle criminal matters well, and they certainly aren't equipped to handle civil matters, such as an unpaid utility bill. Unbelievable that St. Louis County allowed this to happen.

legalschnauzer said...

@10:28 --

I kind of wish it had gone to a jury, too, but I'm not sure that would have guaranteed a big award against the cops. St. Louis County is roughly 68 percent white in a conservative state, and I'm not sure a majority-white jury would have found against the cops.

I'm guessing Ms. Zorich was advised to accept the settlement because relying on the jury was a crap shoot.,_Missouri#Demographics

legalschnauzer said...

Here is an interesting article from about the Zorich case:

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.

Indeed, the overreliance on SWAT teams to perform ordinary law enforcement functions is one of the reasons cops end up shooting so many dogs in the first place.

Hopefully, the hefty settlement awarded to Zorich will get St. Louis County police to reconsider the wisdom of no-knock raids.

Anonymous said...

The Cops were responding to a barking dog complaint.

legalschnauzer said...

@4:20 --

I would suggest you actually read the post, which says:

"Plaintiff then called Rinck, who informed Plaintiff that he was investigating her home for lack of gas service and that someone in her house had said "fuck you" to him."

That clearly states, straight from one of the judge's rulings, that the cops were responding to a gas-service issue. I've seen nothing in the record that indicates the cops even raised the dog issue with Zorich. One reason might be that many counties have little or no regulation about barking dogs and other nuisances. They can become the source of civil litigation, but if there is no county ordinance or code against it, there is nothing cops can do. I haven't read the St. Louis County Code, but counties usually are looser about things like barking dogs than are municipalities. I would says its 50-50 whether the cops had any grounds to even address the dog issue, and even if they did, they certainly did not need a search warrant and tactical gear for that.

In short, you are wrong.

Anonymous said...

With all of that SWAT gear on, why did these cops thing think a relatively small dog posed a threat to them? They were wearing body armor, and God knows what else, but they were so terrified of that dog that they had to shoot it?

Sounds like these cops were a bunch of pussies.

DazzRat said...

Welcome to the "land of the free." Happy "Independence" Day.

These cops are in actuality psychotic, violent criminals and serial sadists, allowed to operate under the color of authority.

Don't ever forget that, nor how the FBI spearheaded a coup d'etat against a duly elected "outsider" president.

No matter how many times Sean Hannity licks the boots of "law enforcement," cops are NOT your friend nor are they your protector.

DazzRat said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Thomas S. Bean said...

+750,000$ as a settlement offer.........says a lot about how many civil rights violations occurred as a pattern and practice. I suspect that the cops-city-watch group had already worked with the court to bug and listen to the jury deliberate and found a higher verdict was coming city cut that in half and settled cheap at 750K.

Anytime you allow a cop created exception to the warrant requirement (barking dog, gas service is off, occupants were rude and not obedient enough to cops' overzealous attempt to talk their way past a warrant requirement)'ll see far more problems down the road.

There are obviously too many cops with way too much fed funding to ever justify this sort of program that seems absent of any legitimate probable cause: that's why the cops are manufacturing half assed atttempts at suckering people into allowing entry without warrant.

Never, ever.......allow cops in your home for any reason without paper. Frankly, I don't think cops can walk on your property to investigate anything without an invitation (they are psycho lying scum with you need them at your door?).

I'm shocked that city attorneys do not make policy for cops that would forbid this type of trumped up "safety" check?

Anonymous said...

Aboard the Eliza Battle the crew was holding a round table discussion. Captain Marshall asked the crew if anyone saw the clue in Roger's July 3,2019 post as to the identity of "Mr Blue Shirt". The Captain continued that the clue is visible but by reading the "Riverfront Times" articles on the St Louis incident, the clue becomes more apparent. Mary Mac asked the Captain to give a clue to what the clue is. The Captain replied "Swat Team". Sheldon asked how the "Riverfront Times" highlighted this Swat Team clue. The Captain replied that the Code Violation Raid was used as a pretext for the cops to search the house after the occupants were removed. Mary Mac replied that the crew was aware that the Swat Team was in Roger's home searching for something, but she still did not see the clue to Mr Blue Shirt's identity. The Captain replied that the Clue was that the Swat Team was always used during the execution of a search warrant. He continued that Mr Blue Shirt was supervising the execution of a search warrant at Roger's home. He added that the Obama/Clinton DOJ did not what Roger to know that they were searching for the Bingo Trial Transcripts and coordinated the search warrant and eviction to be simultaneous. Ms Chapelle informed the Captain that she was concerned for Mike because his attorneys mainly argued the definition of a Principle at his Al Supreme Court Appeal. Captain Marshall replied that Mike's appeal was not about Mike. Ms Chapelle asked him to please explain. The Captain replied that the on-going special grand jury that indicted Mike was used to force an oath of silence on the Bingo Trial participants. When the Grand Jury is dismissed, the remaining indictments will be unsealed. These defendants will stand trial unless the Al Supreme Court rules in Mike's favor in 5 of the counts against him. Mary Mac gasped, "Captain! The Eliza Battle needs to rescue Mike from the Victoria". The Captain replied that a rescue mission was launched at midnight. He continued that Eliza Yancey had disguised Theodora as Minda with the Crimson Tide earrings and with the help of Coach's Cat, will pussy-foot the Marines aboard the Victoria. Ms Chapelle shouted ,"What! You recruited a house cat for combat". The Captain replied that it was not a house cat. It was a Cactus Cat wearing short shorts.

legalschnauzer said...

Thomas B:

I agree with your assessment wholeheartedly. Cops, generally speaking are scum, as is most anyone who is employed around a courthouse. Your scenario about the bugging of jury room is one I had not considered, but I bet it's something that happens quite often. No doubt many juries are rigged, one way or another.

legalschnauzer said...

Eliza B --

Thanks, as always, for a most intriguing and thought-provoking report from the deck of the EB. May you have a pleasant July 4.