The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the City of Spartanburg does not have to compensate a convenience store owner whose building was bulldozed during a 2004 hostage situation.
Attorneys for Carolina Convenience Stores, Inc., had argued the city should repair a wall police officers destroyed with a bulldozer during a standoff with an armed man who had taken a clerk hostage inside. City officials say they aren’t responsible because the damage occurred during normal police operations in order to save a hostage’s life.
The court’s 3-2 decision comes twelve years after the incident. Justices determined that property damage on behalf of the police, in this case, was a valid exercise of the police power.
Chief Jusitice Costa Pleicones wrote the majority opinion with Justices Donald Beatty and Acting Justice Jean Toal concurring. “Property damage resulting from the actions of law enforcement officers acting in their law enforcement capacity is not a compensable taking under the South Carolina Constitution,” Pleicones wrote.
“Compensable taking” is a legal term essentially meaning that government took control of private property and must repay the owner. Historically, it has applied to cases where the government pays a property owner full-market value to take control of private land for public use, such as for a new road or utility line. The court ruled police actions are not covered under the South Carolina Constitution’s use of “taking.”
The 2004 standoff began after suspect Jimmy Johnson fled from a traffic stop into Carolina Convenience Store. Spartanburg officers said Johnson was armed and took a clerk inside hostage. After negotiations were unsuccessful for 12 hours, officers eventually used a bulldozer to breach the building. They arrested Johnson, but also caused severe damage to the business. Spartanburg later razed the convenience store for violating city codes after its owners refused to pay for repairs following the incident.
There were two dissenting opinions from Justice John Kittridge and Kaye Hearn. Both justices thought the claims filed by the store’s owners should be repaid by the city of Spartanburg because the business was an innocent participant in the police actions.
“I, too, agree that no compensable taking occurs where law enforcement is acting pursuant to a warrant or other lawful process,” Hearn wrote, but added, “I believe there is a fundamental distinction between a state’s exercise of its constitutional ‘police powers’ and a particular law enforcement action.”
“A decision by law enforcement to destroy the property of an innocent property owner, however laudable and defensible the decision may be, finds no legislative authority in South Carolina and is thus not an exercise of constitutional police powers,” wrote Hearns in her dissent.