Responsibility for costs of property damage caused by troopers not clear cut

While trying to serve an arrest warrant to an uncooperative Soldotna man on Aug. 21., Alaska State Troopers damaged the house where the man concealed himself.

 

Armed with a gun, James M. Cook Sr., 42, refused to leave a Jones Street residence as law enforcement negotiated with him for about 6 hours. The standoff ended when troopers threw canisters containing chemical agents through the windows into the house and Cook surrendered.

All the windows in the house, which the landlord said he had recently replaced, were broken during the incident.

Cook did not live in the home, but was an acquaintance of the renter of the home, Robin Hilton. With broken windows, damaged possessions and a lingering chemical smell for more than a week after the standoff, Hilton has been living in a tent on the property. Unable to go into the house to get her work clothes because of the severe chemicals, Hilton said she missed four days of work at Walmart, causing her to lose hundreds of dollars of pay. Now she is wondering where to go and who’s going to pay for the damages.

The house is located outside of Soldotna city limits, but Katie Ring, Kenai Peninsula Borough clerk secretary, said if damage to the property was caused by troopers, the department would be responsible for the cost of the damages.

Trooper spokesperson Megan Peters said in this situation, troopers are not responsible for paying for the damages. She said there aren’t set factors that determine whether or not troopers must cover damage fees, but given the “totality of the circumstance” the troopers will not be paying the bill.

Peters said often times the responsibility of who pays for these damages and how much that person or persons much pay is determined in civil court or during sentencing if the accused is found guilty.

Dr. Allan Barnes, a professor at the Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said he is not entirely sure who is responsible for payment in this incident.

He said in situations where law enforcement takes “unreasonable” actions to make arrests, the cost of the damages would the responsibility of that department. But when the reason for the action taken is “based on probable cause and part of the procedure” then the agency is probably not credited with the bill.

“My suspicion is that in the process of arresting this person and getting them convicted, that person would the probably experience the restitution for the damages that were incurred during the arrest given that he didn’t come out and just say, ‘I give up,’” Barnes said.

But, if Cook is convicted and sentenced to pay restitution for the damages from the standoff as well as serve jail time, Hilton and the homeowner may not see that money for years. That situation, Barnes said, could lead to a lawsuit by property owners against the department.

Barnes said because these types of situations don’t happen frequently, he’s not aware of standard procedures to determine who is responsible for paying for the costs of damages.

Since his Aug. 24 District Court arraignment, Cook has been indicted on charges from the standoff, including five counts of third-degree assault of a trooper. He is scheduled for Superior Court arraignment at Kenai Courthouse on Sept. 10.

The arrest warrant was for domestic violence charges including kidnapping and multiple assault charges.

Kaylee Osowski can be reached at kaylee.osowski@peninsulaclarion.com.

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