District of Columbia v. Wesby (Decision January 22, 2018)

Civil Rights - Criminal Law

The Supreme Court ruled today that the D.C. officers who arrested late night partygoers for unlawful entry would not be liable for false arrest.

The suspicious scene

District of Columbia officers responded to a complaint of unlawful activity at a house party. A few people scattered; the officers said they smelled weed; there was some semi-nude dancing going on. Everyone said their friend Peaches had invited them to either a bachelor party or a birthday party. Peaches had told the partygoers it was her new apartment.

Turns out, it wasn't Peaches' home. Peaches had, however, been discussing leasing the place with the owner. The officers were able to talk to Peaches on the phone that night, who said she had in fact invited people over. The owner confirmed that he had been talking to Peaches about leasing, but he had not given anyone permission to be in the home.

DC v. Wesby Decision

The arrest

The officers arrested some of the partiers for unlawful entry. They were later charged with disorderly conduct, although the officers testified they had not seen any behavior of disorderly conduct.

The partiers sued for false arrest. They claim the officers did not have probable cause to arrest them. 

Supreme Court rulings

The Supreme Court ruled for the police on two grounds:

  • The police officers did have probable cause to arrest the partygoers.
  • The police would have had immunity from liability because the law was not clearly established.

Ruling 1: Probable cause

In ruling that the police had reason to distrust the partygoers (the plaintiffs in the case), the court said:

"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.’ 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." (Opinion, page 9).

The Court also noted as suspicious the "partygoers’ reaction to the officers" and "answers to the officers' questions," both as further reason that the police could distrust the partygoer-plaintiffs.

Ruling 2: Immunity

Although the Court could have ended the case with the first ruling, the Court felt compelled to clarify the second question to correct the analysis done by the appeals court.

Police officers can claim qualified immunity if they can establish that the law was not "clearly established."

The Supreme Court clarified that for the law to be "clearly established," the rule must have "sufficiently clear foundation in then-existing precedent." Put another way, the rule must be "clear enough that every reasonable official would interpret it to establish the particular rule the plaintiff seeks to apply."

The Court declared that this situation did not have a clear foundation in precedent. It was unique. Further, the circumstances were suspicious enough that another reasonable officer acting under the same circumstances might have done the same thing (made the arrests). So, even if there had not been probable cause to arrest, the officers would have had qualified immunity.

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