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Law School Case Brief

District of Columbia v. Wesby - 138 S. Ct. 577 (2018)

Rule:

Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, officers are entitled to qualified immunity under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 unless (1) they violated a federal statutory or constitutional right, and (2) the unlawfulness of their conduct was clearly established at the time. Clearly established means that, at the time of the officer’s conduct, the law was sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would understand that what he is doing is unlawful. In other words, existing law must have placed the constitutionality of the officer’s conduct beyond debate. This demanding standard protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. 

Facts:

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 partygoers 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 present. 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. The officers sought further review in the United States Supreme Court.

Issue:

(a) Did the officers have probable cause to arrest for unlawful entry?; (b) Was the law sufficiently established to justify the denial of immunity to the officers?

Answer:

(a) Yes; (b) No

Conclusion:

(a) A reasonable officer could have concluded that there was probable cause to believe the partygoers knew they did not have permission to be in the house, and the officers had probable cause to arrest the partygoers because the officers found a group of people who claimed to be having a bachelor party with no bachelor, in a near-empty house, with strippers in the living room and sexual activity in the bedroom, and who fled at the first sign of police. Accordingly, the District of Columbia and its officers were entitled to summary judgment on the partygoers’ claims of false arrest, under the Fourth Amendment, and negligent supervision; (b) The officers are entitled to qualified immunity under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 unless the unlawfulness of their conduct was “clearly established at the time.” To be clearly established, a legal principle must be “settled law,”  and it must clearly prohibit the officer's conduct in the particular circumstances before him. Even assuming the officers lacked actual probable cause to arrest the partygoers, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because they reasonably but mistakenly concluded that probable cause was present.

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