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D.C. Police Liable for False Arrests at House Party

It's like a scene out of an after-school special: Police are called to the scene of a raucous house party, and finding illegal activity going on, they arrest everyone -- including the party's host, who, as it turns out, doesn't even live there.

That's more or less what the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police wanted the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to see. But the court saw quite the opposite: a party that wasn't in violation of any ordinances, admittedly no illegal activity going on, and a party host whose residency at the house wasn't so cut-and-dry.

Five of the partygoers sued the police for false arrest, and the D.C. Circuit Court affirmed a grant of summary judgment to them.

Fighting for Your Right to Party

A woman known only as "Peaches" called some friends for a late-night housewarming party. They, in turn, invited their friends, and eventually 21 people showed up. Police were called and it turned out that Peaches didn't quite live there yet. She was in the process of signing a lease -- but the partygoers didn't know that. Nevertheless, police arrested them for unlawful entry and disorderly conduct.

The elements of unlawful entry require a defendant to know they're entering a house belonging to someone else. Officers had three pieces of information: (1) the arrestees' statements that they had been invited to the house; (2) the arrestees' knowledge that Peaches invited them there; and (3) the officers' knowledge that Peaches didn't live there, as her putative landlord had told police over the phone they hadn't signed a lease and she didn't have permission to be there.

The fact that Peaches invited the guests, and they reasonably believed she lived there, essentially ended the inquiry: Police should have known that there was no unlawful entry. As the D.C. Circuit explained, "A reasonably prudent officer aware that the Plaintiffs gathered pursuant to an invitation from someone with apparent (if illusory) authority could not conclude that they had entered unlawfully."

In the alternative, the District of Columbia argued there was probable cause for a disorderly conduct arrest. But the court said that the officers exaggerated the disturbance: Only one neighbor made one complaint of noise, while the District's ordinance requires that "a considerable number of persons" be bothered by the conduct.

Turning to every government's favorite defense, the court found that qualified immunity didn't apply. Because there was no probable cause for arresting for either offense, it is clearly established that people have a right not to be arrested for conduct that doesn't meet the elements of the offense.

Dissent

Judge Janice Rogers Brown, formerly of the California Supreme Court, dissented. She characterized the majority opinion as requiring officers to affirmatively prove that "individuals occupying private property know their entry is unauthorized; otherwise police lack probable cause to make arrests." Judge Brown lists a parade of horribles that could occur following the majority's opinion, including abusing "vacation rentals or houses being marketed for sale or lease where prospective tenants can gain entry and retain or misappropriate a key or a lockbox combination, or leave a point of entry unsecured."

Judge Brown also thought the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, as they were faced with a unique factual situation. Qualified immunity doesn't shield police from violations of clearly established law -- but in this case, she said, it was unclear what rights, if any, the arrestees had, as the house was neither an abandoned building, nor was it completely under Peaches' control.

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