October 4, 2017
OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT
District of Columbia police officers responded to a complaint
about loud music and illegal activities in a vacant house.
Inside, they found the house nearly barren and in disarray.
The officers smelled marijuana and observed beer bottles and
cups of liquor on the floor, which was dirty. They found a
make-shift strip club in the living room, and a naked woman
and several men in an upstairs bedroom. Many party-goers
scattered when they saw the uniformed officers, and some hid.
The officers questioned everyone and got inconsistent
stories. Two women identified "Peaches" as the
house's tenant and said that she had given the partygoers
permission to have the party. But Peaches was not there. When
the officers spoke by phone to Peaches, she was nervous,
agitated, and evasive. At first, she claimed that she was
renting the house and had given the partygoers permission to
have the party, but she eventually admitted that she did not
have permission to use the house. The owner confirmed that he
had not given anyone permission to be there. The officers
then arrested the partygoers for unlawful entry.
Several partygoers sued for false arrest under the Fourth
Amendment and District law. The District Court concluded that
the officers lacked probable cause to arrest the partygoers
for unlawful entry and that two of the officers, petitioners
here, were not entitled to qualified immunity. A divided
panel of the D. C. Circuit affirmed.
officers had probable cause to arrest the partygoers. Pp. 7-
(a) Considering the "totality of the circumstances,
" Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371, the
officers made an "entirely reasonable inference"
that the partygoers knew they did not have permission to be
in the house, id., at 372. 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.'" Illinois v.
Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 231. 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. The officers also could infer that
the partygoers knew that they were not supposed to be in the
house because they scattered and hid when the officers
arrived. See Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119,
124-125. The partygoers' vague and implausible answers to
questioning also gave the officers reason to infer that the
partygoers were lying and that their lies suggested a guilty
mind. Cf. Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U.S. 146, 149,
155-156. Peaches' lying and evasive behavior gave the
officers reason to discredit everything she said. The
officers also could have inferred that she lied when she said
she had invited the partygoers to the house, or that she told
the partygoers that she was not actually renting the house.
(b) The panel majority failed to follow two basic and
well-established principles of law. First, it viewed each
fact "in isolation, rather than as a factor in the
totality of the circumstances." Pringle, supra,
at 372, n. 2. Second, it believed that it could dismiss
outright any circumstances that were "susceptible of
innocent explanation, " United States v.
Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 277. Instead, it should have asked
whether a reasonable officer could conclude-considering all
of the surrounding circumstances, including the plausibility
of the explanation itself-that there was a "substantial
chance of criminal activity, " Gates, supra, at
244, n. 13. Pp. 11-13.
officers are entitled to qualified immunity. Pp. 13-19.
(a) As relevant here, officers are entitled to qualified
immunity under 42 U.S.C. §1983 unless the unlawfulness
of their conduct was "clearly established at the time,
" Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658, 664. To be
clearly established, a legal principle must be "settled
law, " Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 228, and
it must clearly prohibit the officer's conduct in the
particular circumstances before him, see Saucier v.
Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 202. In the warrantless arrest
context, "a body of relevant case law" is usually
necessary to " 'clearly establish' the
answer" with respect to probable cause. Brosseau v.
Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 199.
Even assuming that the officers lacked actual probable cause
to arrest the partygoers, they are entitled to qualified
immunity because, given "the circumstances with which
[they] w[ere] confronted, " they "reasonably but
mistakenly conclude[d] that probable cause [wa]s
present." Andersonv. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635,
640, 641. The panel majority and the partygoers have failed
to identify a single precedent finding a Fourth Amendment
violation "under similar circumstances." White
v. Pauly, 580 U.S. ___, ___. And this is not an
"obvious case" where "a body of relevant case
law" is unnecessary. Brosseau, supra, at 199.
(b) Instead of following this straightforward analysis, the
panel majority reasoned that, under clearly established
District law, a suspect's bona fide belief of a right to
enter vitiates probable cause to arrest for unlawful entry.
Thus, it concluded that the "uncontroverted
evidence" of an invitation in this case meant that the
officers could not infer the partygoers' intent from
other circumstances or disbelieve their story. But looking at
the entire legal landscape at the time of the arrests, a
reasonable officer could have interpreted the law as
permitting the arrests here. There was no controlling case
holding that a bona fide belief of a right to enter defeats
probable cause, that officers cannot infer a suspect's
guilty state of mind based on his conduct alone, or that
officers must accept a suspect's innocent explanation at
face value. And several precedents suggested the opposite.
765 F.3d 13, reversed and remanded.
THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which
ROBERTS, C. J., and Kennedy, Breyer, Alito, Kagan, and
Gorsuch, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed an opinion
concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. GlNSBURG,
J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part.
case involves a civil suit against the District of Columbia
and five of its police officers, brought by 16 individuals
who were arrested for holding a raucous, late-night party in
a house they did not have permission to enter. The United
States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
held that there was no probable cause to arrest the
partygoers, and that the officers were not entitled to
qualified immunity. We reverse on both grounds.
1 a.m. on March 16, 2008, the District's Metropolitan
Police Department received a complaint about loud music and
illegal activities at a house in Northeast D. C. The caller,
a former neighborhood commissioner, told police that the
house had been vacant for several months. When officers
arrived at the scene, several neighbors confirmed that the
house should have been empty. The officers approached the
house and, consistent with the complaint, heard loud music
the officers knocked on the front door, they saw a man look
out the window and then run upstairs. One of the party goers
opened the door, and the officers entered. They immediately
observed that the inside of the house "'was in
disarray'" and looked like "'a vacant
property.'" 841 F.Supp.2d 20, 31 (DC 2012) (quoting
Defs. Exh. A). 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.
living room, the officers found a makeshift strip club.
Several women were wearing only bras and thongs, with cash
tucked into their garter belts. The women were giving lap
dances while other partygoers watched. Most of the onlookers
were holding cash and cups of alcohol. After seeing the
uniformed officers, many partygoers scattered into other
parts of the house.
officers found more debauchery upstairs. A naked woman and
several men were in the bedroom. A bare mattress-the only one
in the house-was on the floor, along with some lit candles
and multiple open condom wrappers. A used condom was on the
windowsill. The officers found one partygoer hiding in an
upstairs closet, and another who had shut himself in the
bathroom and refused to come out.
officers found a total of 21 people in the house. After
interviewing all 21, the officers did not get a clear or
consistent story. Many partygoers said they were there for a
bachelor party, but no one could identify the bachelor. Each
of the partygoers claimed that someone had invited them to
the house, but no one could say who. Two of the women working
the party said that a woman named "Peaches" or
"Tasty" was renting the house and had given them
permission to be there. One of the women explained that the
previous owner had recently passed away, and Peaches had just
started renting the house from the grandson who inherited it.
But the house had no boxes or moving supplies. She did not
know Peaches' real name. And Peaches was not there.
officer asked the woman to call Peaches on her phone so he
could talk to her. Peaches answered and explained that she
had just left the party to go to the store. When the officer
asked her to return, Peaches refused because she was afraid
of being arrested. The sergeant supervising the investigation
also spoke with Peaches. At first, Peaches claimed to be
renting the house from the owner, who was fixing it up for
her. She also said that she had given the attendees
permission to have the party. When the sergeant again asked
her who had given her permission to use the house, Peaches
became evasive and hung up. The sergeant called her back, and
she began yelling and insisting that she had permission
before hanging up a second time. The officers eventually got
Peaches on the phone again, and she admitted that she did not
have permission to use the house.
officers then contacted the owner. He told them that he had
been trying to negotiate a lease with Peaches, but they had
not reached an agreement. He confirmed that he had not given
Peaches (or anyone else) permission to be in the house-let
alone permission to use it for a bachelor party. At that
point, the officers arrested the 21 partygoers for unlawful
entry. See D. C. Code §22-3302 (2008). The police
transported the partygoers to the police station, where the
lieutenant decided to charge them with disorderly conduct.
See §22-1321. The partygoers were released, and the
charges were eventually dropped.
16 of the 21 partygoers, sued the District and five of the
arresting officers. They sued the officers for false arrest
under the Fourth Amendment, Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U.S.C.
§1983, and under District law. They sued the District
for false arrest and negligent supervision under District
law. The partygoers' claims were all "predicated