WASHINGTON (CN) – The nature of modern house parties dominated lively Supreme Court oral arguments on Wednesday as the justices considered whether police officers had probable cause to make trespassing arrests.
An arrest for unlawful entry requires officers to consider intent, and prove that a suspect knew or should have known that they entered a property without permission from the owner. In the 2008 case at hand, the D.C. Circuit said that officers had failed to consider either before arresting individuals whose raucous partying at a home in Northeast Washington spurred 911 calls.
Led by Theodore Wesby, 16 of the 21 partiers brought a federal complaint against five police officers and the District of Columbia for false arrest and negligent supervision. Police took their appeal to the Supreme Court after the D.C. Circuit affirmed a $700,000 verdict against them.
D.C. Solicitor General Todd Sunhwae Kim urged the justices at oral arguments Wednesday to step into the officers’ shoes.
They entered a home with little in the way of furniture but a bounty of scantily clad women, their garter belts blooming with cash. Kim said trespassers typically target uninhabited homes for parties, and that the confrontation by police here caused the revelers to scatter.
None of the partiers claimed a right to be there and their behavior was generally suspicious during police interrogations.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor pressed Kim to explain why the partiers needed more than an invitation.
“I don’t have a property right when I get invited into someone’s home,” she said. “I don’t ask to look at their lease. I don’t ask to – for them to establish, to my satisfaction or anyone else’s – their right to be there. I assume if they’re there, they can invite me in.”
Before echoing his colleague’s point, Justice Breyer first joked that perhaps he shouldn’t weigh in on the nature of modern house parties since he is more familiar with the Middle Ages.
Diving in despite his better judgment, 79-year-old Breyer offered a hypothetical situation.
“Younger people frequently say, ‘hey – there’s a party at Joe’s house,’” Breyer said. “And before you know it, 50 people go to Joe’s house. They don’t ask if Joe rents or owns the house – they just assume he has a right to it.”
Kim called the D.C. Circuit’s approach impractical, saying officers should not be expected to “heighten their understanding” of the partygoers’ perceived invitation.
“We don’t think that’s what police officers are required to do on the scene,” Kim said.
Officers need more leeway, he added, when dealing with suspects will often offer innocent explanations for their conduct that prove false.
“A readily available inference for a reasonable officer was that the partygoers were not blameless dupes tricked into some else’s house, but the simpler explanation, they were trespassing to throw a party with drugs and strippers in a place where they thought they wouldn’t get caught,” Kim said.
The outcome of this case will impact the standard for probable cause as it applies to mental state, or intent, of a criminal suspect, determining whether officers can rely on circumstantial evidence or must have probable cause supported by direct evidence of mental state.
Though the district warns the latter would chill the ability of police officers to do their jobs, an attorney for the partiers argued Tuesday that the standard for Fourth Amendment immunity here is clear.
“The host corroborated their statements, and the owner of the house confirmed the host was not some stranger,” said Nathaniel Garrett, a partner at Jones Day in San Francisco. “She had been involved in lease negotiations that ultimately fell through.”
Garrett also disputed that the house appeared vacant, noting that it was furnished with a bed and chairs, as well as candles, window coverings, a shower curtain and a stereo. All of the utilities were on as well, he said. Under D.C. law, Garrett said, the house was not considered vacant.
In response to a question from Justice Samuel Alito about what the officers should have done after making all of their inquiries at the house, Garrett said officers could have asked the partiers to leave once they knew the owner did not want them there.
If they refused to leave at that point, then it would become unlawful entry, he said. They could have also cited them for disorderly conduct, which would not have raised Fourth Amendment concerns.
The partiers had told police that they got their invite to what was billed as a bachelor party from a woman named “Peaches.” One guest said Peaches was renting the house from the owner, but police found no trace of the hostess at the party. When they reached her on the phone, she refused to return to the house, fearing arrest. Peaches said she had given her guests permission to have the party, but later conceded that the owner had not authorized it.
The owner told police officers he had tried to work out a lease agreement with Peaches, but confirmed that the partiers did not have his permission for the late-night shindig.