The Supreme Court sanctioned the 2008 arrest of two dozen people at a vacant house party in Washington D.C., Monday, despite the arrestees good faith belief they had a right to be in the home.
Justice Clarence Thomas’ opinion for a seven-justice Court explained that police are not bound to accept a suspect’s explanations of innocence, and that sufficient evidence existed to justify the arrests. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor filed their own opinions concurring in the judgement.
Thomas noted the responding officers came upon a scene of total “debauchery,” featuring strippers, lap dances, alcohol, and evidence of prostitution and drug use, suggesting the partygoers were knowingly using a vacant home for unseemly or illegal activities.
“Viewing these circumstances as a whole, a reasonable officer could conclude that there was probable cause to believe the partygoers knew they did not have permission to be in the house,” Thomas wrote.
The case was occasioned in March 2008 when police received a call from a local civic leader reporting loud music and illegal activities at a home he knew to be vacant. When officers arrived on scene, they found beer and liquor bottles strewn around the house, strippers with cash in their garter belts, and a naked woman with several men in a bedroom littered with condoms.
The house itself appeared unoccupied — light fixtures dangled from the ceiling and the floor was so dirty that partygoers refused to sit down on it.
The officers also claimed to smell marijuana, but recovered no evidence of drug use.
Several partygoers explained a woman named “Peaches” who leased the property was hosting the party. Police reached Peaches, identified by The Washington Post as Veronica Little, by phone. She eventually conceded she was not leasing the house and had no right to throw the party. Officers then identified the property’s rightful owner, who confirmed the house was vacant and that the party was unauthorized. The 21 partygoers were then arrested for unlawful entry.
The charges were later dropped.
The partygoers subsequently sued the officers for false arrest, arguing they had no reason to believe they were trespassing, since they believed Peaches was the lawful occupant of the home. A trial judge agreed, and awarded them a $1 million judgement. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the ruling, prompting an appeal to the Supreme Court.
In his opinion for the Court, Thomas described the circumstances of the party in lurid terms, noting there was ample evidence of illegal activity.
“The living room had been converted into a makeshift strip club. Strippers in bras and thongs, with cash stuffed in their garter belts, were giving lap dances,” he wrote. “Upstairs, the officers found a group of men with a single, naked woman on a bare mattress—the only bed in the house—along with multiple open condom wrappers and a used condom.”
He further noted that no other court has ever held that a suspect’s good-faith belief in their right to enter can defeat probable cause to arrest, and that the officers themselves were immune to a lawsuit, since their actions were not plainly unlawful.
Monday’s ruling vacates the million dollar judgement, and insulates the officers from further lawsuits.
Writing in concurrence, Ginsburg agreed with the outcome, but urged the Court to adopt a new approach to such cases, fearing the current approach consistently favors police.
“The Court’s jurisprudence, I am concerned, sets the balance too heavily in favor of police unaccountability to the detriment of Fourth Amendment protection,” Ginsburg wrote.
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