District of Columbia v. Wesby,
583 U.S. ___ (2018)

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Justia Opinion Summary

District of Columbia police officers responded to a complaint about loud music and illegal activities in a vacant house and found the house in disarray. They smelled marijuana and saw liquor. They found a makeshift strip club in the living room, and a naked woman and several men in a bedroom. The partygoers gave inconsistent stories. Two identified “Peaches” as the tenant and said that she had given permission for the party. When the officers spoke by phone to Peaches, she was agitated and evasive, eventually admitting 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 arrested the partygoers for unlawful entry. Several partygoers sued for false arrest. The Supreme Court held that the officers had probable cause to arrest the partygoers. Considering the totality of the circumstances, the officers made an “entirely reasonable inference” that the partygoers knew they did not have permission to be in the house, The condition of the house and the conduct of the partygoers allowed the officers to make common-sense conclusions about human behavior and infer that the partygoers, who scattered and hid, knew the party was not authorized. The partygoers’ implausible answers gave the officers reason to infer that they were lying. The officers are entitled to qualified immunity under 42 U.S.C. 1983 even if they lacked actual probable cause because a reasonable officer could have interpreted the law as permitting the arrests.

  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)  | 
  • Opinion (Sonia Sotomayor)  | 
  • Opinion (Clarence Thomas)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

District of Columbia et al. v. Wesby et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the district of columbia circuit

No. 15–1485. Argued October 4, 2017—Decided January 22, 2018

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 party- goers 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. A divided panel of the D. C. Circuit affirmed.

Held:

1. The officers had probable cause to arrest the partygoers. Pp. 7–13.

(a) Considering the “totality of the circumstances,” Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U. S. 366 , the officers made an “entirely reasonable inference” that the partygoers knew they did not have permission to be in the house, id., at 372. Taken together, the condition of the house and the conduct of the partygoers allowed the officers to make several “ ‘common-sense conclusions about human behavior.’ ” Illinois v. Gates, 462 U. S. 213 . Because most homeowners do not live in such conditions or permit such activities in their homes, the officers could infer that the partygoers knew the party was not authorized. The officers also could infer that the partygoers knew that they were not supposed to be in the house because they scattered and hid when the officers arrived. See Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U. S. 119 –125. The partygoers’ vague and implausible answers to questioning also gave the officers reason to infer that the partygoers were lying and that their lies suggested a guilty mind. Cf. Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U. S. 146 –156. Peaches’ lying and evasive behavior gave the officers reason to discredit everything she said. The officers also could have inferred that she lied when she said she had invited the partygoers to the house, or that she told the partygoers that she was not actually renting the house. Pp. 7–11.

(b) The panel majority failed to follow two basic and well-established principles of law. First, it viewed each fact “in isolation, rather than as a factor in the totality of the circumstances.” Pringle, supra, at 372, n. 2. Second, it believed that it could dismiss outright any circumstances that were “susceptible of innocent explanation,” United States v. Arvizu, 534 U. S. 266 . Instead, it should have asked whether a reasonable officer could conclude—considering all of the surrounding circumstances, including the plausibility of the explanation itself—that there was a “substantial chance of criminal activity,” Gates, supra, at 244, n. 13. Pp. 11–13.

2. The officers are entitled to qualified immunity. Pp. 13–19.

(a) As relevant here, officers are entitled to qualified immunity under 42 U. S. C. §1983 unless the unlawfulness of their conduct was “clearly established at the time,” Reichle v. Howards, 566 U. S. 658 . To be clearly established, a legal principle must be “settled law,” Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U. S. 224 , and it must clearly prohibit the officer’s conduct in the particular circumstances before him, see Saucier v. Katz, 533 U. S. 194 . In the warrantless arrest context, “a body of relevant case law” is usually necessary to “ ‘clearly establish’ the answer” with respect to probable cause. Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U. S. 194 .

Even assuming that the officers lacked actual probable cause to arrest the partygoers, they are entitled to qualified immunity because, given “the circumstances with which [they] w[ere] confronted,” they “reasonably but mistakenly conclude[d] that probable cause [wa]s present.” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U. S. 635 . The panel majority and the partygoers have failed to identify a single precedent finding a Fourth Amendment violation “under similar circumstances.” White v. Pauly, 580 U. S. ___, ___. And this is not an “obvious case” where “a body of relevant case law” is unnecessary. Brosseau, supra, at 199. Pp. 13–16.

(b) Instead of following this straightforward analysis, the panel majority reasoned that, under clearly established District law, a suspect’s bona fide belief of a right to enter vitiates probable cause to arrest for unlawful entry. Thus, it concluded that the “uncontroverted evidence” of an invitation in this case meant that the officers could not infer the partygoers’ intent from other circumstances or disbelieve their story. But looking at the entire legal landscape at the time of the arrests, a reasonable officer could have interpreted the law as permitting the arrests here. 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. And several precedents suggested the opposite. Pp. 16–19.

765 F. 3d 13, reversed and remanded.

Thomas, J., 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.

Primary Holding

Conditions at the house and behavior of the partygoers gave officers reason to infer that the partygoers knew that their use of the house was unauthorized and probable cause to arrest the partygoers.

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