Party Time: D.C. v. Westby in the U.S. Supreme Court

Swear to God, same thing happened to me!  Go to a party on a Saturday night, cops bust in,  homeowner claims to “know nothing”, everybody gets busted and goes down to the police station.  Officers make arrests for trespassing, since the homeowner dummies up.  That is basically the fact pattern from District of Columbia v. Westby, to be argued in the Supreme Court soon.  However, there is no crime of “trespassing” if there is nothing to suggest that that the partygoers knew or should have known that they were entering against the owner’s will.  The arrested folks brought a lawsuit against the arresting officers for false arrest, they won a judgment, and the DC police brought the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that its officers had probable cause under the Fourth Amendment to make the arrests.

Westby is a bit more interesting, and salacious, than my aborted party that one Saturday eons ago.  First, there was someone named either “Peaches” or “Tasty” identified by some of the partiers as the person who told them about the shindig.  Also, when the cops arrived, some of the women were selling lap dances, some had money hanging out from their undergarments, and most shockingly, the officers smelled marijuana.  

Putting to the side that parties (the good ones anyway) get interrupted all the time when someone calls the police, the bigger issue is the extent of the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause requirement in similar circumstances. The police officers argue that the question is whether, in light of all the facts, the officers could have reasonably believed that the partygoers were trespassing. The police point out that the party was in an apparently vacant house, it was nighttime, when they entered they observed the scantily clothed women who were seemingly removing their garments in exchange for currency, everybody scattered like cockroaches when the cops arrived, there were marijuana smells everywhere, and the homeowner told police that they didn’t have permission to be there. The District of Columbia says that officers should not be required to determine exactly what a suspect knows before arresting him, for just about everybody professes innocence. The government and the officers say that if the lower court rulings are allowed to stand, it will “have a broad chilling effect on law enforcement officers when making on-the-scene credibility judgments, adversely affecting their everyday ability to do their jobs and protect the public.”

I rather doubt the the partygoers will win, for the Court tends to protect officers who are on the scene and need to make split-second decisions.  However, the right to be free from an unreasonable arrest is substantial, and the next time, it could be one of the Justices getting down on a Saturday night when the law comes busting in.  I just hope Peaches is OK.