District of Columbia v. Wesby

Justia Summary

District of Columbia police officers responded to a complaint about loud music and illegal activities in a vacant house and found the house in disarray. They smelled marijuana and saw liquor. They found a makeshift strip club in the living room, and a naked woman and several men in a bedroom. The partygoers gave inconsistent stories. Two identified “Peaches” as the tenant and said that she had given permission for the party. When the officers spoke by phone to Peaches, she was agitated and evasive, eventually admitting that she did not have permission to use the house. The owner confirmed that he had not given anyone permission to be there. The officers arrested the partygoers for unlawful entry. Several partygoers sued for false arrest. The Supreme Court held that the officers had probable cause to arrest the partygoers. Considering the totality of the circumstances, the officers made an “entirely reasonable inference” that the partygoers knew they did not have permission to be in the house, The condition of the house and the conduct of the partygoers allowed the officers to make common-sense conclusions about human behavior and infer that the partygoers, who scattered and hid, knew the party was not authorized. The partygoers’ implausible answers gave the officers reason to infer that they were lying. The officers are entitled to qualified immunity under 42 U.S.C. 1983 even if they lacked actual probable cause because a reasonable officer could have interpreted the law as permitting the arrests.