U.S. Supreme Court holds officers at scene were not required to belief innocent explanations of suspects given circumstances – probable cause therefore exists for arrests.

District of Columbia, et al. v Wesby, et al, No. 15–1485., — U.S. – (January 22, 2018).

This is an unconstitutional false arrest case where the U.S. Supreme Court determined the officers on the scene had probable cause to make arrests of partygoers. The Court’s collection of opinions totals twenty-five pages.

D.C. police officers responded to a complaint about noise at a vacant house. Upon arriving and entering, the house was in disarray and nearly barren. When searching for the source of the noise officers discovered a makeshift strip club with several partygoers and strippers.  All pointed to someone named “Peaches” who allegedly gave them permission to use the home. After investigating and contacting Peaches, the officers discovered she had no authority to grant access to the home and the true owner did not give permission. The officers arrested the partygoers for illegal entry. After the charges were eventually dropped, the partygoers sued the officers and D.C. for false arrest.  On cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court awarded partial summary judgment to the partygoers, holding the officers lacked probable cause to arrest. Specifically, the charge required the partygoers to have knowledge they were illegally present. While Peaches may not have had authority to give, no evidence existed the partygoers knew that. The Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of the partygoers’ summary judgment and denial of qualified immunity. In other words, the officers needed “some evidence” that the partygoers “knew or should have known they were entering against the will of the lawful owner.” The Supreme Court granted review.

A warrantless arrest is reasonable if the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect committed a crime in the officer’s presence. Courts examine the events leading up to the arrest, and then decide whether these historical facts, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amount to probable cause. Probable cause is “a fluid concept” that is “not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules.”  The Court went through a detailed review of what the officers knew and could reasonably infer and the totality of the circumstances.  The Court ultimately determined a reasonable officer could infer the partygoers were knowingly taking advantage of a vacant house as a venue for their late-night party.  The U.S. Constitution does not require the officers to believe the partygoers given the circumstances surrounding them. Probable cause “does not require officers to rule out a suspect’s innocent explanation for suspicious facts.” The condition of the house and the conduct of the partygoers allowed the officers to make several “common-sense conclusions about human behavior.” The Court provided an excellent analysis of the record and why each such specific fact helps support probable cause. In holding the contrary, the Court of Appeals engaged in an “excessively technical dissection” of the factors supporting probable cause. The Court had a definite issue with the Court of Appeals analysis which took each fact in isolation, instead of as one part of the totality of circumstances. A factor viewed in isolation is often more “readily susceptible to an innocent explanation” than one viewed as part of a totality. The Court even held that while its merit analysis ends the dispute and case, since the Court of Appeals incorrectly applied qualified immunity and the merits, the Court was going to analyze everything to correct the panel’s error anyway. For those dealing with qualified immunity issues, it is a helpful and instructive analysis. The summary judgment for the partygoers is reversed.

Justice Sotomayor concurred, but wrote separately to question the majority’s decision to slap the Court of Appeals by analyzing and ruling on matters beyond what is needed to resolve the case.

Justice Ginsburg concurred on the judgement only in part. She was concerned, the majority’s opinion sets the balance too heavily in favor of police unaccountability to the detriment of Fourth Amendment protection.  However, she agreed, under a qualified immunity analysis, no “settled law” exists on the fact specific subject, so the officers were entitled to immunity.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Thomas, 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. GINSBURG, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part.