Loud Music, Strippers, and Arrests: SCOTUS Weighs Party Fallout

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By Jessica DaSilva

U.S. Supreme Court justices during oral argument Oct. 4 showed that in spite of years sitting on benches, they still know how to party ( District of Columbia v. Wesby , U.S., No. 15-1485, argued 10/4/17 ).

Arguments before the court revolved around a party held at a vacant home in Washington, D.C., held by a host named “Peaches,” who claimed that she had just rented the house.

More than a dozen in attendance were arrested with a lawsuit ultimately challenging whether officers had probable cause to haul them down to the station for unlawful entry, a misdemeanor.

The suit came about when party-goer Theodore Wesby sued the officers for his arrest, arguing that none of the party-goers had the required mental intent to break the law because they didn’t know Peaches hadn’t actually moved in to the house yet and was technically trespassing.

In response, police claimed they were protected by qualified immunity, which insulates officers from being held liable for reasonable conduct while doing their jobs.

What ensued before the court was a dynamic discussion involving modern party culture, past lives of justices, and what police versus party-goers might find suspicious.

Probable Cause

Robert A. Parker and Todd S. Kim, from the solicitor general’s office on behalf of the District of Columbia, maintained that the circumstances police encountered gave them a reasonable assumption that the party was not authorized by the owners.

Kim and Parker cited at least one out of the several phone calls made to the police that informed officers the house was vacant, a fact Wesby disputed. Both attorneys also argued that police knew young people regularly broke into houses in the neighborhood to host parties.

When police arrived on the scene, they saw a mostly bare home with just a mattress, folding chairs, a dirty floor, the smell of marijuana, strippers, and “used contraception” on the floor, both attorneys said.

The utilities were working, but no one seemed to know who or where the host was, they said. Some claimed to be in attendance for a birthday party and others said a bachelor party, but no one could identify the guest of honor, they said.

But justices seemed unconvinced that these facts provided the officers with probable cause to arrest the party-goers.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it’s not commonplace to ask to see someone’s lease or deed when you’re invited to a party, even if the apartment is relatively unfurnished.

Everyone has moved into a new place with just a mattress and some folding chairs, said Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, making one of the more conservative observations.

The Secret Lives of Justices

Justices pushed back on the idea that young people would leave a party because they didn’t know the host.

“I might be more familiar with the Middle Ages,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said to laughter, “but my understanding is that someone might say, ‘Joe is throwing a party,’ and then 50 people will show up.”

Justice Elena Kagan went even further, arguing that the presence of drugs likely wouldn’t deter young people from a party because it never deterred her.

“In my youth, I remember going to parties,” Kagan said. “And marijuana may have been present at those parties. You wouldn’t just say, ‘I gotta get out of here.’ Isn’t arrest a bit harsh?”

“They just know that Joe is having a party and they’re having a good time,” she concluded.

But Parker said other facts were present that could alert police to unlawful entry like the presence of strippers or the house being in disarray.

Justices didn’t seem to buy those facts either, noting that Peaches said it was a bachelor party.

“And what happens during a party?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked. “Disarray.”

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

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

For More Information

Full transcript at http://src.bna.com/s62.

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