Dist. of Columbia v. Wesby

Decision Date22 January 2018
Docket NumberNo. 15–1485.,15–1485.
Parties DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Petitioners v. Theodore WESBY, et al.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Todd S. Kim, Washington, DC, for Petitioners.

Robert A. Parker, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the petitioners.

Nathaniel P. Garrett, San Francisco, CA, for Respondents.

Nathaniel P. Garrett, Jones Day, San Francisco, CA, Charlotte H. Taylor, Julia Fong Sheketoff, Jones Day, Gregory L. Lattimer, Washington, DC, for Respondents.

Karl A. Racine, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, Loren L. Alikhan, Deputy Solicitor General, Carl J. Schifferle, Assistant Attorney General, D.C. Office of the Attorney General, Washington, DC, for Petitioners.

Justice THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves a civil suit against the District of Columbia and five of its police officers, brought by 16 individuals who were arrested for holding a raucous, late-night party in a house they did not have permission to enter. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that there was no probable cause to arrest the partygoers, and that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity. We reverse on both grounds.


Around 1 a.m. on March 16, 2008, the District's Metropolitan Police Department received a complaint about loud music and illegal activities at a house in Northeast D.C. The caller, a former neighborhood commissioner, told police that the house had been vacant for several months. When officers arrived at the scene, several neighbors confirmed that the house should have been empty. The officers approached the house and, consistent with the complaint, heard loud music playing inside.

After the officers knocked on the front door, they saw a man look out the window and then run upstairs. One of the partygoers opened the door, and the officers entered. They immediately observed that the inside of the house " ‘was in disarray’ " and looked like " ‘a vacant property.’ " 841 F.Supp.2d 20, 31 (D.D.C.2012) (quoting Defs. Exh. A). The officers smelled marijuana and saw beer bottles and cups of liquor on the floor. In fact, the floor was so dirty that one of the partygoers refused to sit on it while being questioned. Although the house had working electricity and plumbing, it had no furniture downstairs other than a few padded metal chairs. The only other signs of habitation were blinds on the windows, food in the refrigerator, and toiletries in the bathroom.

In the living room, the officers found a makeshift strip club. Several women were wearing only bras and thongs, with cash tucked into their garter belts. The women were giving lap dances while other partygoers watched. Most of the onlookers were holding cash and cups of alcohol. After seeing the uniformed officers, many partygoers scattered into other parts of the house.

The officers found more debauchery upstairs. A naked woman and several men were in the bedroom. A bare mattress—the only one in the house—was on the floor, along with some lit candles and multiple open condom wrappers. A used condom was on the windowsill. The officers found one partygoer hiding in an upstairs closet, and another who had shut himself in the bathroom and refused to come out.

The officers found a total of 21 people in the house. After interviewing all 21, the officers did not get a clear or consistent story. Many partygoers said they were there for a bachelor party, but no one could identify the bachelor. Each of the partygoers claimed that someone had invited them to the house, but no one could say who. 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. One of the women explained that the previous owner had recently passed away, and Peaches had just started renting the house from the grandson who inherited it. But the house had no boxes or moving supplies. She did not know Peaches' real name. And Peaches was not there.

An officer asked the woman to call Peaches on her phone so he could talk to her. Peaches answered and explained that she had just left the party to go to the store. When the officer asked her to return, Peaches refused because she was afraid of being arrested. The sergeant supervising the investigation also spoke with Peaches. At first, Peaches claimed to be renting the house from the owner, who was fixing it up for her. She also said that she had given the attendees permission to have the party. When the sergeant again asked her who had given her permission to use the house, Peaches became evasive and hung up. The sergeant called her back, and she began yelling and insisting that she had permission before hanging up a second time. The officers eventually got Peaches on the phone again, and she admitted that she did not have permission to use the house.

The officers then contacted the owner. He told them that he had been trying to negotiate a lease with Peaches, but they had not reached an agreement. He confirmed that he had not given Peaches (or anyone else) permission to be in the house—let alone permission to use it for a bachelor party. At that point, the officers arrested the 21 partygoers for unlawful entry. See D.C. Code § 22–3302 (2008). The police transported the partygoers to the police station, where the lieutenant decided to charge them with disorderly conduct. See § 22–1321. The partygoers were released, and the charges were eventually dropped.1


Respondents, 16 of the 21 partygoers, sued the District and five of the arresting officers. They sued the officers for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment, Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and under District law. They sued the District for false arrest and negligent supervision under District law. The partygoers' claims were all "predicated upon the allegation that [they] were arrested without probable cause." 841 F.Supp.2d, at 32.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, the District Court awarded partial summary judgment to the partygoers. Id., at 48–49. It concluded that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest the partygoers for unlawful entry.2 Id., at 32–33. The officers were told that Peaches had invited the partygoers to the house, the District Court reasoned, and nothing the officers learned in their investigation suggested the partygoers " ‘knew or should have known that [they were] entering against the [owner's] will.’ " Id., at 32. The District Court also concluded that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity under § 1983.3 It noted that, under District case law, "probable cause to arrest for unlawful entry requires evidence that the alleged intruder knew or should have known, upon entry, that such entry was against the will of the owner."

Id., at 37. And in its view, the officers had no such evidence. Id., at 32–33, 37–38.

With liability resolved, the case proceeded to trial on damages. The jury awarded the partygoers a total of $680,000 in compensatory damages. After the District Court awarded attorney's fees, the total award was nearly $1 million.

On appeal, a divided panel of the D.C. Circuit affirmed. On the question of probable cause, the panel majority made Peaches' invitation "central" to its determination that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest the partygoers for unlawful entry. 765 F.3d 13, 21 (2014). The panel majority asserted that, "in the absence of any conflicting information, Peaches' invitation vitiates the necessary element of [the partygoers'] intent to enter against the will of the lawful owner." Ibid. And the panel majority determined that "there is simply no evidence in the record that [the partygoers] had any reason to think the invitation was invalid." Ibid.

On the question of qualified immunity, the panel majority determined that it was "perfectly clear" that a person with "a good purpose and bona fide belief of her right to enter" lacks the necessary intent for unlawful entry. Id., at 27. 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." Ibid. And here, the panel majority asserted, the officers must "have known that uncontroverted evidence of an invitation to enter the premises would vitiate probable cause for unlawful entry." Ibid.

Judge Brown dissented. She concluded that summary judgment on the false-arrest claims was improper because, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable officer "could disbelieve [the partygoers'] claim of innocent entry" and infer that they knew or should have known that they did not have permission to be in the house. Id., at 34. She also disagreed with the denial of qualified immunity, contending that a reasonable officer could have found probable cause to arrest in this "unusual factual scenario, not well represented in the controlling case law." Id., at 36.

The D.C. Circuit denied rehearing en banc over the dissent of four judges. The dissenters focused on qualified immunity, contending that the panel opinion "contravene[d] ... emphatic Supreme Court directives" that "police officers may not be held liable for damages unless the officers were ‘plainly incompetent’ or ‘knowingly violate[d] clearly established law." 816 F.3d 96, 102 (2016) (quoting Carroll v. Carman, 574 U.S. ––––, ––––, 135 S.Ct. 348, 350, 190 L.Ed.2d 311 (2014) (per curiam )). The panel majority—Judges Pillard and Edwards—responded in a joint concurrence. 816 F.3d, at 96–101. They insisted that the panel opinion did not misapply the law of qualified immunity, and that their disagreement with the dissenters was a mere "case-specific assessment of the circumstantial evidence in the record." Id., at 100.

We granted certiorari to resolve two questions: whether the officers had probable cause to arrest the partygoers, and whether the officers were...

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