WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court threw out a $1 million probable-cause verdict Monday for attendees of a raucous house party that was busted by police.
“There is no dispute that the partygoers entered the house against the will of the owner,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the largely unanimous court this morning. “Nonetheless, the partygoers contend that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest them because the officers had no reason to believe that they ‘knew or should have known’ their ‘entry was unwanted.’ We disagree. 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.”
Thomas said the condition of the property backs this conclusion.
Before entering the home in Northeast Washington on March 16, 2008, police were informed by multiple residents that the house now blaring with music at 1 a.m. had been vacant for months.
The house had working electricity and plumbing, but was otherwise sparsely furnished with a few padded metal chairs. There was a makeshift strip club in the living room, and a bare mattress on the floor of one of the bedrooms, littered with one used condom and many more condom wrappers. Several women inside the house were dressed only in bras and thongs, with cash stuffed in their garter belts.
“Most homeowners do not live in near-barren houses,” Thomas wrote. “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.”
Thomas said the behavior of the partygoers compounded these observations.
Many scattered and hid when police entered, Thomas noted, calling this an indicator a guilty mind. Some of the men claimed to be attending a bachelor party, but none could identify the bachelor. Only two of the women working the party offered up the name of a supposed hostess — identifying her alternately as Peaches and Tasty.
When police eventually reached Peaches on the phone, she admitted she had no authority to use the house. Thomas called this “consistent with how the partygoers were treating it.”
The police ultimately arrested 21 men and women and charged them with disorderly conduct. Led by Theodore Wesby, 16 of these individuals filed suit a few months later, alleging that the arrests violated their rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
They won nearly $700,000 in damages, plus another $300,000 in attorneys’ fees, but the Supreme Court reversed for the district Monday, just three months after oral arguments.
Thomas said the officers were entitled to qualified immunity and had probable cause, but that the D.C. Circuit contorted itself to find otherwise.
“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,” the 19-page ruling concludes. “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. Indeed, several precedents suggested the opposite. The officers were thus entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity.”
Most of the justices joined the lead opinion but Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued brief explanations about why they concurred only in part.
Sotomayor said she would have reversed on the basis of qualified immunity alone. “I disagree with the majority’s decision to reach the merits of the probable-cause question, which it does apparently only to ensure that, in addition to respondents’ 42 U.S.C. §1983 claims, the court’s decision will resolve respondents’ state-law claims of false arrest and negligent supervision,” she wrote. “It is possible that our qualified-immunity decision alone will resolve those claims. In light of the lack of a dispute on an important legal question and the heavily fact-bound nature of the probable-cause determination here, I do not think that the court should have reached that issue. The lower courts are well equipped to handle the remaining state-law claims in the first instance.”
Sotomayor concurred in part and concurred in the judgment, while Ginsburg concurred in the judgment in part.
“The court’s jurisprudence, I am concerned, sets the balance too heavily in favor of police unaccountability to the detriment of Fourth Amendment protection,” Sotomayor wrote.
The court should leave open, Sotomayor added, “whether a police officer’s reason for acting, in at least some circumstances, should factor into the Fourth Amendment inquiry.”