Law School Case Brief
District of Columbia v. Wesby - 138 S. Ct. 577 (2018)
The Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. Because arrests are seizures of persons, they must be reasonable under the circumstances. A warrantless arrest is reasonable if the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect committed a crime in the officer’s presence.
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. 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 there. 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. The appellate court affirmed, and the partygoers appealed.
Did the police officers lack probable cause to arrest the partygoers for unlawful entry, thereby violating the partygoers’ Fourth Amendment rights?
The Court held that 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. The Court averred that 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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