Orson Welles, whose film credits include directing Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and playing the lawyer in “Compulsion” based on Clarence Darrow at the trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, famously observed: “Nobody gets justice. People only get good luck or bad luck.”
Yet, citizens who feel unfairly victimized are unlikely to rely on luck to be made whole and instead will seek justice by summoning the authorities in the face of a harm, slight or significant, real or perceived.
These aggrieved taxpayers are often shocked to learn their only legal remedy may lie in a private cause of action. Particularly when the harm seems tangible, a state or local actor is expected to step in and a refusal to do so can prove jarring.
Frustrations rarely are as hot as when one party openly, even defiantly, wrongfully damages another, and the police are called but decline to intercede.
Consider, for example, house squatters, folks who settle into property for some time with no legal claim to it and steadfastly refuse to leave. Upon discovering them, property owners might dial 911 to have the intruders arrested immediately, but are often told they must initiate time-consuming eviction proceedings instead.
Similarly, an idling motorist struck by a speeding vehicle will expect the responding sheriff’s deputy to arrest the other driver, or at least issue a citation. Yet, without witnesses to the collision, the officer might tell both drivers to let their insurance companies, or the civil court system, sort it out.
A sleepless neighbor victimized by late night music coming from next door, or by a barking beagle, or by an early morning lawnmower might likewise demand the local police enforce the city code by making an arrest, or at least issuing a fine, and will be none too pleased with the likely response to work through municipal channels.
Now, take the level of angst generated in each of these situations, mash it all together, and the combined level still will not approach the outrage experienced by Lee and Lelia Beckleman on Feb. 9. That’s when their real estate agent arrived at their Fort Worth, Texas, home, located near the Texas Christian University campus, after learning the front entrance was suddenly boarded up.
The Becklemans were one week away from selling their house at 2736 Forest Park Blvd., when they learned it was gutted. Burglars had stripped the home bare, taking not merely the furniture and appliances, but the doors, shutters, air conditioning units, toilets, water heaters, hardwood floor, and molding. Even the doorbell was stolen.
It turns out their son, a TCU student, lived there with some roommates. The son and his friends left, however, last August. Certain roommates continued to live in the house for a time, but it was left unoccupied since October. As the real estate agent soon discovered, the surprisingly thorough burglars struck the residence just days earlier.
Except burglars were not involved, and nothing was actually stolen.
Just as the Fort Worth Police Department began investigating, a contractor called to explain. He was hired to gut the house at 2700 Forest Park Blvd. Following instructions, he kicked the door in to gain access. When he and his crew arrived, they failed to notice that while the address imprinted on the curb was 2700 Forest Park, the address on the house itself read 2736.
Turns out it was the crew that carefully removed the house’s contents over three days, explaining to curious neighbors how they were hired to perform the work. Evidently, no suspicions were aroused.
With confession in hand, most citizens might expect the police would charge the contractor with breaking and entering, theft, vandalism, criminal damage to property or criminal mischief. Maybe all of the above. At the very least, the contractor who gutted the wrong house was surely trespassing.
Not according to the Fort Worth police, who declined to file any charges. A police spokesman noted the contractor did not intend to deprive the Becklemans of their property, indicating that the loss suffered was “a huge misunderstanding” and a “big goof up.”
So this innocent Texas family, who lost all but the walls and bathtubs of their home, felt victimized a second time when the local authorities refused to even issue a fine against the identified and acknowledged perpetrator. Instead, Fort Worth’s finest announced they were “leaving it up to the contractor and victim to settle it.”
This decision lines up with the exhausted neighbor driven away by an unrepentant pooch’s incessant, late-night barking, or the rear-ended motorist, unaided by a deputy, forced to turn to her skeptical insurer and brace for the inevitable rate increase.
However, rather than treat the city’s inaction as exoneration, the remorseful contractor actually entered negotiations to fully compensate the Becklemans, and even offered to purchase their house for the selling price.
The Becklemans unexpectedly found themselves in a position to be made whole after their local authorities declined to act.
While Orson Welles might view this as unusually good luck, it smacks of justice.