Supreme Court Clarifies Probable Cause Determinations Based on Officer’s Understanding of Surrounding Circumstances

After years in waiting, the Supreme Court ruled on District of Columbia v. Wesby, and found that DC police officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment after arresting 21 individuals at a party for unlawful entry. In doing so, the Court clarified that probable cause determinations are made from a reasonable officer’s consideration of the surrounding circumstances.

On March 16, 2008, the District of Columbia’s (DC) Metropolitan Police Department received a complaint about loud music and illegal activities taking place in a vacant house in Northeast DC. When officers arrived at the house, they heard loud music even though several neighbors informed them that the house should have been vacant.

After the officers knocked on the door, they saw a man look out the window and run upstairs. Another individual then opened the door and the officers entered. The inside of the house was in disarray and dirty. Although the house had working electricity and plumbing, padded metal chairs, blinds on the windows, food in the windows, and toiletries in the bathroom, the property otherwise looked uninhabited.

The house smelled of marijuana, was littered with beer bottles and cups of liquor, and had a makeshift strip club in the living room. When the officers entered the house, the occupants scattered. Upstairs, the officers found a naked woman and several men on the sole mattress in the house. The officers also found one individual hiding in a closet and another in the bathroom, refusing to come out. 

In total, the officers found 21 people in the house. The officers interviewed the occupants, but did not get a clear, consistent story why they were there. Some individuals said that they were at the house for a bachelor party, but could not identify the bachelor. Others said that they were invited to the house, but only 2 could name the person that invited them. These 2 individuals said that “Peaches” or “Tasty” was renting the house and gave them permission to be there. However, Peaches was not at the house.

The officers called Peaches on the phone and asked her to return to the house. Though Peaches refused to return to the house, she claimed to rent it from the owner and stated she gave the occupants permission to have the party. When the officers asked Peaches who gave her permission to use the house, Peaches hung up. The officers called Peaches again, and Peaches yelled that she had permission to use the house and hung up again. After the officers got Peaches on the phone one more time, and Peaches admitted that she did not have permission to use the house. The officers then called the owner, who said that he was negotiating a lease with Peaches, but had not given her permission to be in the house or use it for a bachelor party.

Thereafter, the officers arrested the 21 occupants of the house for unlawful entry. At the police station, the occupants were charged with disorderly conduct and were released. The charges were eventually dropped.

16 of the 21 occupants sued DC for false arrest and negligent supervision under DC law and 5 of the arresting officers for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and DC law. Each of the claims alleged the occupants were arrested without probable cause.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court awarded partial summary judgment to the occupants, concluding that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest them for unlawful entry. The district court also concluded that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity. On appeal, the DC Circuit affirmed, finding that the officers had no reason to believe the occupants knew of or should have known that they were not allowed in the house.

Thereafter, Supreme Court granted certiorari. According to DC and the officers, the DC Circuit’s opinion requires officers to determine what a suspect knows before arresting him. Demonstrating what the officer believed the suspect knew muddles what is required in showing probable cause. DC and the officers argued that an officer should be able to draw inferences from the entire constellation of facts.

The Court’s case law on probable cause is unspecific, defining probable cause as a “practical,” “fluid,” “flexible,” and “common sense standard” that requires “the kind of fair probability on which reasonable and prudent people” must act. Before the Court was the issue of how probable cause determinations are to be made from the perspective of a “reasonable officer.”

The Court emphasized the need for probable cause determinations to be made based on the totality of the circumstances, and not by the “divide-and-conquer analysis” applied by the DC Circuit. The Court found that the DC Circuit viewed each fact “in isolation, rather than as a factor in the totality of the circumstances.” In particular, the DC Circuit put significant weight on the fact that the occupants claimed to have been invited to the house.

According to the Supreme Court, what the DC Circuit should have asked was whether a reasonable officer could conclude, considered the surrounding circumstances, whether there was a “substantial chance of criminal activity.” The Court found that the circumstances at issue suggested criminal activity.

The Court first considered that the house had few signs of inhabitance, suggesting that the neighbors’ reports that the house was vacant were true. Next, the Court looked at the occupants’ conduct when the officers arrived. The occupants were hosting a party that was going strong late at night and with music so loud it could be heard from outside. The inside of the house was littered with beer bottles and cups of liquor, the living room was converted into a makeshift strip club, and the only mattress was occupied by a naked woman and a group of men. Likewise, the occupants’ reaction to the officers gave them reason to believe the occupants knew they did not have permission to be in the house. Considering these circumstances, the Court held that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest and found DC and the officers entitled to summary judgement.

The Court then exercised its discretion to correct the DC Circuit’s ruling that the question of qualified immunity, stating that the DC Circuit’s analysis on qualified immunity, if followed, would “undermine the values qualified immunity seeks to promote.”

Officers are entitled to qualified immunity under § 1983 unless they violated a federal statutory or constitutional right, and the unlawfulness of their conduct was “clearly established at the time.” The latter requires existing law to have placed the constitutionality of the officers’ conduct “beyond debate.” Accordingly, a legal principle must have a sufficiently clear foundation in then-existing precedent.

The DC Circuit reasoned that under DC law, a suspect’s “good purpose and bona fide belief of her right to enter” vitiates probable cause to arrest her for unlawful entry. The court of appeals treated the occupants’ invitation to enter the premises as “uncontroverted evidence.” In doing, so the DC Circuit incorrectly assumed the officers could not infer the occupants’ intent from other circumstances.

The Supreme Court disagreed and found that the officers were able to infer the occupants’ guilty state of mind based solely on their conduct. Thus, a reasonable officer, looking at the “entire landscape” at the time of the arrests could have interpreted DC law as permitting the arrests. The Court concluded that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because they “reasonably concluded that probable cause was present.

The Supreme reversed the DC Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Read the full case: District of Columbia v. Wesby


This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, Associate Attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.






Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: Supreme Court


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