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The Supreme Court reiterates that “clearly established law” is not judged on generalities and must be considered against the particular facts of a case.

April 1, 2018
District of Columbia v. Wesby, No. 15-1485, 2018 U.S. LEXIS 760 (Jan. 22, 2018)

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 ultimately held that there was no probable cause to arrest the partygoers and that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity.

The officers responded to a noise complaint. They entered the allegedly vacant house to find the house in complete disarray with a makeshift strip club and other indicia of illegal activity. After interviewing all 21 of the people found in the house, the officers did not get a clear or consistent story, but they were able to confirm with the owner of the residence that no one had permission to be in the residence.

The Supreme Court ultimately disagreed with the District Court and determined that, when considering the totality of the circumstances, such as the condition of the house, the partygoers’ reaction to the officers’ presence and the inconsistent stories of why each person was present, gave the officers reason to believe the partygoers knew they did not have permission to be in the home. The court further expressed displeasure with the “excessively technical dissection” of the factors supporting probable cause. The court also held that a reasonable officer, looking at the entire legal landscape at the time of the arrests, could have interpreted the law as permitting the arrests here. Also, as there was no controlling case holding that a bona fide belief of a right to enter defeats probable cause, the 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. Therefore, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

 

Case Law Alerts, 2nd Quarter, April 2018

Case Law Alerts is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. Copyright © 2018 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, all rights reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm.

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