The US Supreme Court [official site] held [opinion, PDF] Monday in District of Columbia v. Wesby [SCOTUSblog materials] that DC police officers acted reasonably when they arrested 21 people for unlawful entry during a house party in 2008, given that the owner was not present and it was unclear if the guests had been given permission to enter the house. The court further concluded that even if the arrests had been unlawful, the officers are still entitled to qualified immunity.
On the night in question, police responded to a neighbor’s complaint about noise and illegal activity coming from a house in Washington, DC. Upon the officers being let in, many of the partygoers ran when they noticed the police and the officers “immediately observed that the inside of the house ‘was in disarray’ and ‘looked like a vacant property.'” The officers were told by some of the guests that a woman named “Peaches” had invited them and that she was renting the house, but after speaking with “Peaches” on the phone, and being hung up on several times, she admitted to not having permission. All 21 of the people in the house were arrested and although all charges were dropped 16 of the partygoers brought suit against the department as well as individual officers for false arrest.
In coming to this unanimous decision, the court reversed a divided panel decision [opinion, PDF] of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official site] that had upheld a district court decision in favor of the partygoers and awarded them upwards of one million dollars after legal fees. The circuit court had found that the police acted unreasonably in arresting the partygoers since they had been invited to the house and nothing suggested to the officers that they “knew or should have known that [they were] entering against [the owner’s] will,” as required under the law. However, the court concluded that the circuit court had failed to consider the facts as a whole and that the officers acted reasonably in consideration of the totality of the circumstances.”Based on the vagueness and implausibility of the partygoers’ stories, the officers could have reasonably inferred that they were lying and that their lies suggested a guilty mind.”
Regarding the issue of qualified immunity, the court held that 42 USC § 1983 [materials] entitles police officers to qualified immunity unless the unlawfulness of the police conduct is “clearly established at the time.” The court reiterated that in order for illegal conduct to be clearly established, there must be a violation with sufficiently similar circumstances that has been addressed by prior case law or “an obvious case where a body of relevant case law is irrelevant,” neither of which the court found present here.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with the judgement based the presence of qualified immunity, but each wrote a dissent from the court’s finding of probable cause in the case.