Supreme Court to Define Contours of False Arrest Claims

February 15, 2017 - (3 min read)

What if a police officer arrests someone because the officer doesn’t believe the person is telling the truth and there is evidence the officer is right?

In District of Columbia v. Wesby, the Supreme Court will decide whether, when the owner of a vacant house informs police he has not authorized entry, an officer assessing probable cause to arrest those inside for trespassing may discredit the suspects’ claims of an innocent mental state.

Facts similar to those in this case may not arise very often. But police officers must assess claims of innocence in numerous other instances (theft, assault, even homicide).

In this case, police officers arrested a group of late-night partygoers for trespass. The party-goers gave police conflicting reasons for why they were at the house (birthday party v. bachelor party). Some said “Peaches” invited them to the house; others said they were invited by another guest. Police officers called Peaches, who told them she gave the partygoers permission to use the house. But she admitted that she had no permission to use the house herself; she was in the process of renting it. The landlord confirmed by phone that Peaches hadn’t signed a lease. The partygoers were never charged with trespass.

The partygoers later sued the police officers for violating their Fourth Amendment right to be free from false arrest. To be guilty of trespass, the partygoers had to have entered the house knowing they were doing so “against the will of the lawful occupant or of the person lawfully in charge.” They partygoers claimed they did not know they lacked permission to be in the house.

D.C. Circuit granted the partygoers summary judgment, reasoning police officers lacked probable cause to make the arrest for trespass because “all of the information that the police had gathered by the time of the arrest made clear that the plaintiffs had every reason to think that they had entered the house with the express consent of someone they believed to be the lawful occupant.”

Dissenting Judge Brown concluded that summary judgment was inappropriate in this case where “the probable cause determination [that trespass occurred] turns on close questions of credibility, as well as the reasonability of inferences regarding culpable states of mind that officers draw from a complicated factual context.” Evidence (like the host not being there, the different reasons cited for the party, the lack of furnishing in the house, etc.) cast doubt on the credibility of the partygoers’ statement that they believed they had permission to enter the house.

Over Judge Brown’s objection, the court also denied the police officers qualified immunity based on the “uncontroverted” evidence that the partygoers believed a lawful occupant invited them.

State and local government officials can be sued for money damages in their individual capacity if they violate a person’s constitutional rights. Qualified immunity protects government officials from such lawsuits where the law they violated isn’t “clearly established.”