By Lisa Soronen
The Supreme Court takes all kinds of cases and local governments have all kinds of challenges. District of Columbia v. Wesby is proof of this.
In District of Columbia v. Wesby, the majority of the Supreme Court ruled D.C. police officers had probable cause to arrest individuals for holding a “raucous, late-night party in a house they did not have permission to enter.” All nine of the Justices ruled in favor of granting qualified immunity to the police officers. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case supporting D.C.
Police were called to a home in D.C. around 1 a.m. based on complaints of loud music and illegal activity. The house was dirty with no furniture downstairs except a few metal chairs. In the living room the officers found “a makeshift strip club”; they found “more debauchery upstairs.” While many partygoers said they were there for a bachelor party no one could identify the bachelor.
Two of the women working the party said that “Peaches” was renting the house and had given them permission to be there. Police officers called Peaches who told them she gave the partygoers permission to use the house. But she ultimately admitted that she had no permission to use the house herself; she was in the process of renting it.
The landlord confirmed by phone that Peaches hadn’t signed a lease. The partygoers were charged with, but never prosecuted for, disorderly conduct.
The partygoers sued D.C. for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment. The D.C. Circuit concluded there was no probable cause to arrest them. Peaches invited them—so the officers had no reason to believe the partygoers “knew or should have known” their “entry was unwanted.”
The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, looked at the totality of the circumstances and concluded police officers made an “entirely reasonable inference” that the partygoers “were knowingly taking advantage of a vacant house as a venue for their late-night party.”
The totality of the circumstances included: the condition of the house (filthy and empty); the partygoers’ conduct (makeshift strip club); their reaction to police presence (scattering, hiding in closets); their answers to questions (vague and implausible); and Peaches’ invitation (from a confirmed liar).
State and local government officials can be sued for money damages in their individual capacity if they violate a person’s constitutional rights. Qualified immunity protects government officials from such lawsuits where the law they violated isn’t “clearly established.”
The D.C. Circuit denied the police officers qualified immunity in this case. According to Thomas, by treating the invitation as “uncontroverted evidence” of lawful entry the D.C. Circuit incorrectly “assumed that the officers could not infer the partygoers’ intent from other circumstances” and incorrectly “assumed that the officers could not disbelieve the partygoers’ story.”
In the same vein, the SLLC amicus brief argued the police officers should have been able to doubt the partygoers claim they had permission to be at the house because circumstantial evidence indicated otherwise.
In concluding the officers should have been granted qualified immunity (even assuming they lacked probable cause) the court stated that “existing precedent would have given the officers reason to doubt that they had to accept the partygoers’ assertion of a bona fide belief. The D.C. Court of Appeals has held that officers are not required to take a suspect’s innocent explanation at face value.”
John J. Korzen, Wake Forest University School of Law Appellate Advocacy Clinic, wrote the SLLC brief which was joined by the National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, International City/County Management Association, International Municipal Lawyers Association, and the National Sheriffs Association.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a frequent contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.