Cops Had Probable Cause to Arrest D.C. Partygoers, SCOTUS Says

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By Jessica DaSilva

A party featuring marijuana, a makeshift strip club, and condoms all over the floor of an abandoned house appropriately led police to arrest attendees who believed the host—a woman known only as “Peaches"—had legal rights in the property, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Jan. 22.

When police arrived, partygoers ran away or hid, which established enough probable cause for police to believe the party was not authorized and that those present knew or could infer that, the court said in a ruling in which all judges agreed, but two concurred only in the judgment.

“Taken together, the condition of the house and the conduct of the partygoers allowed the officers to make several common-sense conclusions about human behavior,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. “Because most homeowners do not live in such conditions or permit such activities in their homes, the officers could infer that the partygoers knew the party was not authorized.”

Based on the reasonable basis for probable cause—even if it were mistaken—the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, which means they can’t be sued for conduct on the job so long as their actions are deemed reasonable.

Condoms, Strippers, and Weed

Neighbors called the police to complain about noise coming from a house the neighbors said had not been occupied for some time, according to the opinion. When officers showed up, they were met with “debauchery.” Liquor bottles appeared all over the house, and officers immediately identified the smell of marijuana, the court noted.

Police noticed the house appeared barren with nothing but a few padded folding chairs on the first floor, the opinion said. When they searched upstairs, they found a bare mattress with a naked woman atop and several men in the bedroom. Condom wrappers peppered the floor.

When police began questioning, they received inconsistent information about who lived in the house and what was the occasion for the party. Some said it was a bachelor party, but couldn’t identify the bachelor.

Several people identified a woman known as “Peaches” as the host, but she wasn’t there, the opinion said. One of the guests called her so police could speak with her on the phone. Peaches twice told officers she was renting the house, refused to come back to the party so they couldn’t arrest her, and hung up on the officers. Eventually, she called back and admitted she did not have any rights to the property, the opinion noted.

Sixteen of those arrested sued the city and the individual officers for damages because they believed they had permission to be there. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with them, upholding a $1 million verdict that had been awarded by a trial court jury.

Justices Who Know How to Party

During oral arguments, several justices indicated their younger party days still lived on in their memories. Justice Stephen Breyer joked about remembering what it was like to attend parties—saying young people often accept invites from casual acquaintances and trust that they have some property interest in the venue.

Yet despite the questions lending sympathy to young partiers, justices ultimately sided with police.

The partygoers’ actions in running and hiding must be weighed with Peaches’s confession.

“Viewing these circumstances as a whole, a reasonable officer could conclude that there was probable cause to believe the partygoers knew they did not have permission to be in the house,” the court concluded.

On qualified immunity for police, the premise of the arrests was reasonable even if if their understanding had been mistaken and it were revealed that Peaches had indeed just moved into the house.

That was the only point that drew concurrences from Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg expressed concern over the evolution of the court’s jurisprudence in probable cause under the Fourth Amendment’s protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

“I would leave open, for reexamination in a future case, whether a police officer’s reason for acting, in at least some circumstances, should factor into the Fourth Amendment inquiry,” Ginsburg wrote.

“Given the current state of the Court’s precedent, however, I agree that the disposition gained by plaintiffs-respondents was not warranted by ‘settled law.’ The defendants-petitioners are therefore sheltered by qualified immunity,” she said.

The case is District of Columbia v. Wesby , U.S., No. 15-1485, 1/22/18 .

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva in Washington at jdasilva@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bloomberglaw.com

For More Information

Listen to oral arguments: http://src.bna.com/vPb

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