A house party, the Supreme Court, and police powers collide

A U.S. Supreme Court case has implications for police arrest powers and the right to sue police.

"Debauched" is not a word usually associated with the U.S. Supreme Court, but it is one that is being heard quite a bit in a current case before the nation's top justices. That case concerns a raucous house party in a quiet D.C. neighborhood that led to dozens of trespassing arrests. The issue before the Supreme Court is whether or not the police had probable cause for making those arrests, especially considering that the partygoers insisted they thought they had been invited to the party by the home's owners. The outcome of the case could have major implications for police arrest powers throughout the country.

House party gets out of hand

The house party occurred in Northeast Washington, D.C. in 2008 and was hosted by a woman nicknamed "Peaches," who invited the guests to the property without telling them whether she had been authorized to throw the party by the homeowner. The party eventually got out of hand, with both plaintiffs and defendants describing it as "debauched" in court filings, and police were called to the property.

"Peaches," however, was not actually at the property. When police called her she initially told them she was a tenant before, according to the Washington Post, becoming evasive about whether she had permission to host the party. Police also contacted the homeowner and found out the party had been unauthorized.

The police then arrested 21 partygoers and charged them with trespassing since the homeowner had not granted permission for the party. Those charges were eventually changed to disorderly conduct before being dropped entirely.

Right to sue police departments

The arrested partygoers then sued the District, claiming that police lacked probable cause for detaining the partygoers. Those partygoers all told police that they thought "Peaches" either was the house owner or had permission from the owner to host the party. Lawyers for the partygoers point out that it is common for people to arrive at house parties without actually knowing the owner or the host. Expecting partygoers to double check that every house party has been authorized is, they claim, unrealistic.

However, police claim that even if the partygoers weren't breaking the law, the police still had probable cause for detaining them. Having probable cause is important because, as The Atlantic points out, it generally protects police from being sued so long as they act in good faith in carrying out their duties.

What is probable cause

While this is a civil case and not a criminal case, it may provide yet another fine line on the ever evolving definition of "probable cause." Typically, a trespass charge carries with it the burden of the police having to show that an individual knowingly unlawfully remained on the property of another. As a result, prior to arresting an individual for trespass, the officers must minimally have "probable cause" to believe that they committed the crime of trespass. To answer whether the Plaintiff's suit may proceed, the Supreme Court in this case is may well have an resolve the question of: "To what extent must officers have evidence of an individual's state of mind when asserting that they have "probable cause to arrest that person." In this case, it seems likely that the police had no evidence that the partygoers were "knowlingly" trespassing and as a result, may well have violated the partygoers civil rights by making an illegal arrest .

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to issue its ruling in the case.

Criminal law help

The above article is a reminder that not all arrests are a guarantee that a crime has actually been committed. Those who are facing criminal charges need to contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can help defendants understand how to respond to the charges and how best to protect and uphold their client's rights and freedoms.