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'Peaches Sent Me' Defense Brings Trespassers to Supreme Court

When police officers in Washington, D.C. responded to a noise complaint one night in 2008, they found an unusual scene: women in lingerie, money hanging from their garter belts, marijuana smoke wafting through the air. It was something out of a make-shift strip joint, not the empty tableau you'd expect in a reportedly vacant building.

But the partygoers had an excuse: A woman going by "Peaches" and "Tasty" had invited them. And she had, it turns out. But the partiers were arrested for trespassing anyway. Now, nearly nine years later, their case is coming before the Supreme Court.

Peaches and Probable Cause

The Peaches case, District of Columbia v. Wesby, could have important probable cause and qualified immunity implications.

When the police arrived at the party at 1:00 a.m., they were given several reasons why the building was being used for the party. It was a birthday, some said. A bachelor party, according to others. And then, of course, there was Peaches.

Though several of the alleged trespassers say they were invited in by Peaches, Peaches was not the homeowner and told officers she had no permission to use the home -- that much she admitted over the phone at the time. Police contacted the homeowner, who confirmed. The police then arrested all 21 people present.

Those 21 were never charged and 16 of them eventually filed a Section 1983 suit, alleging that the officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights by arresting them without probable cause.

The district court agreed, finding that "nothing about what the police learned at the scene suggests that the [partiers] 'knew or should have known that they were entering against the owner's will." The D.C. Circuit upheld that decision, and the nearly $1 million award that came with it.

"In the absence of any conflicting information," the circuit said, "Peaches' invitation vitiates the necessary element" of intent. Such a fact would have been clear to any reasonably prudent officer, the D.C. Circuit found, and thus the police were not protected by qualified immunity.

An Easy Win for D.C.?

D.C. appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which granted cert last week -- joining 17 other recently added cases to fill out the docket.

By some measures, the District of Columbia might have a decent chance at winning. The Supreme Court has repeatedly reversed lower court decisions that it viewed as too willing to reject qualified immunity defenses. Just a week before cert was granted in Wesby, for example, the Court decided White v. Pauly, reversing the Tenth Circuit's denial of qualified immunity. The brief, per curiam opinion warned courts that qualified immunity can only be escaped when clearly established law is clearly particularized to the facts of the case.

Here, D.C. argues that there was no such clarity. That position was echoed in D.C. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown's dissent, where she argued that the law had never previously required "officers to credit the statement of the intruders regarding their own purported innocent mental state where the surrounding facts and circumstances cast doubt on the veracity of such claims." Even the majority noted that no cases had invalidated a trespass arrest under similar circumstances.

Still, the officers might also face a divided Court. Wesby had been considered in conference nine times before the Supreme Court agreed to take it up. That could, as SCOTUSblog's Amy Howe notes, signal that the justices were considering a summary reversal. Or it could evidence a split between the justices over whether the case should be taken up at all.

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