US Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Police in DC House Party Case
Larry E. Holtz, Esq.
A boisterous, late night Washington, DC, party leads to the arrest of partygoers and, ultimately, to a decision regarding probable cause.
Recently, in District of Columbia v. Wesby, 583 U.S. ___ (2018), the United States Supreme Court rejected a claim made by 16 trespassing partygoers that the police lacked probable cause to arrest them.
The circumstances unfolded at about 1:00 a.m. in the middle of March 2008 when District of Columbia police officers responded to a complaint about loud music and illegal activities at a house described as “vacant” by the caller, a former neighborhood commissioner. Upon arrival, several neighbors confirmed that the house should have been empty.
When the officers knocked on the front door, one of the partygoers opened the door and the officers entered. The house “was in disarray” and looked like a “vacant” property. “The officers smelled marijuana and saw beer bottles and cups of liquor on the floor. In fact, the floor was so dirty that one of the partygoers refused to sit on it while being questioned. Although the house had working electricity and plumbing, it had no furniture downstairs other than a few padded metal chairs. The only other signs of habitation were blinds on the windows, food in the refrigerator and toiletries in the bathroom.”
“In the living room, the officers found a makeshift strip club. Several women were wearing only bras and thongs, with cash tucked into their garter belts. . . . After seeing the uniformed officers, many partygoers scattered into other parts of the house.” In one of the upstairs bedrooms, the officers found a naked woman and several men. One partygoer was located hiding in an upstairs closet and another who had shut himself in the bathroom refused to come out.
The officers questioned the 21 people in the house, but were unable to obtain a clear or consistent story. Two of the women working the party said that a woman named “Peaches” was renting the house and had given them permission to be there. She did not know Peaches’ real name, but was able to call her on her phone so that an officer could talk to her. When asked about who had given her permission to use the house, Peaches became agitated, nervous and evasive. Ultimately, she admitted that she did not have permission to use the house.
The officers then contacted the owner who confirmed that he had not given anyone permission to be there. At that point, the officers arrested the 21 partygoers for unlawful entry. At police headquarters, a lieutenant decided to change the charge to disorderly conduct. “The partygoers were released and the charges were eventually dropped.”
Sixteen of the partygoers sued the District and five of the arresting officers for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983. Although the District Court and Court of Appeals concluded that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest and that they were not entitled to qualified immunity, the United States Supreme Court disagreed and reversed.
Preliminarily, the Court addressed whether the officers had probable cause to arrest the partygoers. “To determine whether an officer had probable cause for an arrest,” courts will “examine the events leading up to the arrest, and then decide whether these historical facts, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amount to probable cause.” Here, we are looking for “only a probability or substantial chance of criminal activity, not an actual showing of such activity.”
In this case, there was no dispute that the partygoers entered the house without the permission of the owner. “Considering the totality of the circumstances, the 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.”
From all accounts, it was apparent that the house had been vacant for several months. It had no furniture, except for a few padded metal chairs and a bare mattress. “The house had a few signs of inhabitance – working electricity and plumbing, blinds on the windows, toiletries in the bathroom, and food in the refrigerator. But, those facts are not necessarily inconsistent with the house being unoccupied.” Indeed, the partygoers could have brought the food and toiletries.
“In addition to the condition of the house, consider the partygoers’ conduct. The party was still going strong when the officers arrived after 1:00 a.m., with music so loud that it could be heard from outside. Upon entering the house, multiple officers smelled marijuana. The partygoers left beer bottles and cups of liquor on the floor, and they left the floor so dirty that one of them refused to sit on it. The living room had been converted into a makeshift strip club. Strippers in bras and thongs, with cash stuffed in their garter belts, were giving lap dances. Upstairs, the officers found a group of men with a single, naked woman on a bare mattress – the only bed in the house – along with multiple open condom wrappers and a used condom.”
“Taken together, the condition of the house and the conduct of the partygoers allowed the officers to make several ‘commonsense conclusions about human behavior.’ Most homeowners do not live in near barren houses. And, most homeowners do not invite people over to use their living room as a strip club, to have sex in their bedroom, to smoke marijuana inside, and to leave their floors filthy. The officers could thus infer that the partygoers knew their party was not authorized.”
The partygoers’ reaction to the officers’ arrival gave them further reason to believe the partygoers were trespassers. “Many scattered at the sight of the uniformed officers. Two hid themselves, one in a closet and the other in a bathroom.” This behavior was “certainly suggestive” of wrongdoing. Moreover, the partygoers’ answers to the officers’ questions also suggested their guilty state of mind. When the officers asked who had given them permission to be there, “the partygoers gave vague and implausible responses.” Additionally, “some of the partygoers claimed the event was a bachelor party, but no one could identify the bachelor. The officers could have disbelieved them since people normally do not throw a bachelor party without a bachelor.”
Peaches, after initially insisting that she had permission to use the house, “ultimately confessed that this was a lie – a fact that the owner confirmed. Peaches’ lying and evasive behavior gave the officers reason to discredit everything she had told them.”
“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.”
Accordingly, the Court reversed the D.C. Circuit’s holding that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest and concluded that the District and its officers were entitled to summary judgment on all of the partygoers’ claims. The Court’s conclusion that the officers had probable cause to arrest the partygoers was sufficient to resolve this case. Nonetheless, the Court went on to rule that the officers were also clearly entitled to qualified immunity under §1983.
Larry E. Holtz has served as a Detective Sergeant with the Atlantic City, New Jersey, Police Department; a Deputy Attorney General for the state of New Jersey; and an Assistant County Prosecutor. Presently, Mr. Holtz is the Managing Editor of Blue360° Media, the largest US provider of legal information which is solely focused on serving law enforcement.
Mr. Holtz is a certified police trainer and teaches on a regular basis. He is a member of the bar in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia and is admitted to practice before the federal bar in the District of New Jersey and the Third Circuit.