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District of Columbia v. Wesby

United States Supreme Court

January 22, 2018

583 U.S.___(2018)
v.
THEODORE WESBY, ET AL. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., PETITIONERS

          Argued October 4, 2017

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

         Syllabus

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.

         Held:

         1. The officers had probable cause to arrest the partygoers. Pp. 7- 13.

(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. Pp. 7-11.
(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.

         2. The 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. Pp. 13-16.
(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. Pp. 16-19.

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.

          OPINION

          Thomas Justice.

         This 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.

         I

         Around 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 playing inside.

         After 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.

         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. 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.

         The 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.

         The 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.

         An 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.

         The 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.[1]

         II

         Respondents, 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 ...


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