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.

No comments: