“Two of the women working the party said that a woman named “Peaches” or “Tasty” was renting the house and had given them permission to be there.”
“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.’”
— District of Columbia v. Wesby, 2018
We think of the Justices of the United States Supreme Court, sitting in their black robes in the Court’s regal home in Washington D.C., as carefully pondering the most important and most momentous questions of constitution law. We imagine that they ponderously pore over dusty law books, researching the best way to rule on the few cases that come before them. So it may come as some surprise that earlier this week, the Justices answered a question that few of us had considered, but that had massive consequences for all of the parties involved.
As a result of this case we can now safely conclude that if we are invited to a party by a woman known only as “Peaches” and, upon arriving at the home where the party is to be held, we discover that the home has no furniture, but does have a “makeshift strip club” in the living room, then we should reasonably begin to question whether we actually have permission to be in the home at all. Or at least a majority of the Supreme Court says so.
It may also come as a surprise that the District of Columbia Police Department felt that way too and, as a result, arrested the 21 people they found in the home (including several who were not wearing any clothing, but not including “Peaches” who had the good sense not to be there when the police arrived), charging them each with trespassing, only to have a federal court determine that the arrests were unlawful and award $1,000,000 in damages and attorney fees to the people who were in the home.
All kidding aside, the case, District of Columbia v. Wesby, is a landmark in the area of qualified immunity of police officers, and will have major implications in that realm in the future. That’s because the federal District Court for the District of Columbia determined that not only should the officers not have arrested the occupants of the home, they should have known that the occupants didn’t know that they weren’t allowed to be there and, therefore, had not broken the law. It was on this basis that the District Court ordered damages and attorney fees to the people who were arrested.
The Supreme Court disagreed — unanimously in fact (though Justice Ginsburg had a narrower theory of the case). The High Court was of the opinion that the lower court applied the law incorrectly. In essence, the Supreme Court felt that the officers had been held to too strict a standard. Previous case law had established that an officer has probable cause to arrest based upon a “totality of the circumstances” test in which the reviewing court examines all of the circumstances known to the officer.
The Supreme Court concluded that the lower court in this case had not looked at the facts known to the officers as a whole, but rather had dissected those facts “in isolation,” dismissing any fact that was “susceptible of innocent explanation.” Looking at all the facts together — the lack of furniture, the abundant alcohol, the fact that most of the partygoers had no idea who owned the house or who had invited them there, the state of undress of several of the people in the house, and what the High Court called “more debauchery upstairs,” combined with the fact that many of the people present ran, hid in closets, or locked themselves in the bathroom when the police arrived, gave the police more than ample cause to conclude that the people at the party should have known that they didn’t have permission to be there.
The police later determined that “Peaches” had tried to rent the home from its owner, but no agreement had been struck, ‘Peaches’ had no permission to be there, but most of the party goers didn’t know that and had been told that they were, in fact, allowed to be there. Under District of Columbia law the lack of knowledge is a defense, and none of the party goers who were plaintiffs in this case was ultimately charged, not to mention convicted, of trespass.
It’s worth noting that Ohio law on trespass is different than that of the District. So if you get that invite from “Peaches,” you might just want to gather some more information about the location before you decide whether to attend or not.
David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.