Latest Fourth Amendment Opinion: District of Columbia v. Wesby

On January 22, the Court handed down its decision for District of Columbia v. Wesby, a Fourth Amendment case out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, ruling that the police acted reasonably in their response to a loud party at a vacant house. Justice Thomas wrote an opinion for himself and six other justices, in which, as Adam Liptak put it in the New York Times, Adam Liptak, he provided an “unusually vivid and extended description” of the facts of the case.

In March 2008, police officers responded to a complaint of loud music and illegal activities at a vacant house in Northeast D. C. Upon their arrival, neighbors confirmed that the house should have been empty. The police officers entered the house and were confronted with a raucous party. Officers smelled marijuana, found partygoers drinking alcohol, and discovered a “makeshift strip club” in the living room. They interviewed all 21 partygoers and received inconsistent stories, but several partygoers informed them that a woman named “Peaches” was the tenant who gave them permission to be in the house. Peaches was not at the property, and when police called her, she first informed them that she was renting the house and that she gave permission for the party, but ultimately conceded that she did not have permission to use the house. When the police called the property owner, he said he did not give permission for the party, and the officers subsequently arrested all 21 partygoers and charged them with unlawful entry, and later, with disorderly conduct.

The charges were eventually dropped, but 16 of the arrestees sued the officers and the District of Columbia for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment and District law, arguing that officers did not have probable cause to arrest them for unlawful entry. The district court agreed, noting that, under District law, “probable cause to arrest for unlawful entry requires evidence that the alleged intruder knew or should have known, upon entry, that such entry was against the will of the owner.” As the officers lacked probable cause, the district court also found that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity, because it was unreasonable for the officers to believe that there were not violating the partygoers’ Fourth Amendment rights against false arrest when arresting them without probable cause. The D.C. Circuit affirmed both of these holdings.

In a 9-0 decision, the Court reversed the findings of the circuit court and held that the officers did have probable cause to arrest the partygoers, and that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. Justice Thomas, in an opinion joined by six other justices, held that the D.C. Circuit improperly considered each fact leading up to the partygoers’ arrests “in isolation, rather than as a factor in the totality of the circumstances.” Thomas discussed the dirty and near vacant conditions of the house, the fact that the partygoers fled the police when they entered, their inconsistent explanations for the party (including claiming it was a bachelor party without being able to identify the bachelor), and the fact that only two of the partygoers named Peaches as the tenant who allegedly gave them permission to enter the home as factors that gave rise to the inference that the partygoers knew they did not have permission to be in the home. “Viewing these circumstance as a whole,” Thomas writes, “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.”

Finally, the Court held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, as:

“. . .a reasonable officer looking at the entire legal landscape at the time of the arrests, 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.”

Justice Sotomayor joined in the judgment but filed a concurring opinion, in which she concluded that, because the majority concluded that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, it was not necessary to assess the question of probable cause. Justice Ginsburg, while joining the majority in the judgment, expressed her concern in a separate concurring opinion that “the Court’s jurisprudence. . . sets the balance too heavily in favor of police unaccountability to the detriment of the Fourth Amendment protection.” Further, she would “leave open, for reexamination in a future case, whether a police officer’s reason for acting, in at least some circumstances, should factor into the Fourth Amendment inquiry.” In other words, although she suggested that the Court should revisit its decision in Whren v. United States, a 1996 case that allows police to stop any car they have witnessed commit a traffic violation even if their motivation for the stop is unrelated to that violation.

Ann E. Marimow, in a piece for the Washington Post, uncovers the identity of the tenant referred to as “Peaches” in the opinion and in court documents. Peaches, whose real name was Veronica Little, was resistant to being involved in the case at any point in the proceedings. She was a bartender and entrepreneur who passed away in 2017.

This post was written by Elisabeth Heiber, ISCOTUS Fellow and Chicago-Kent College of Law Class of 2019, and edited by Anna Jirschele, ISCOTUS Editorial Coordinator and Chicago-Kent Class of 2018, and by Carolyn Shapiro, Chicago-Kent Faculty Member and ISCOTUS Co-Director.

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