The Supreme Court on Monday said D.C. police officers acted reasonably in arresting 21 people at a late-night house party a decade ago in a case that featured women in garter belts stuffed with cash and a mystery hostess named "Peaches."
The court ruled unanimously that the officers could not be held liable for making the arrests after they came upon a scene of "utter Bacchanalia," as Justice Clarence Thomas described it in announcing the decision, at a house party where the homeowner was not present and it was unclear whether the guests had been invited.
"Based on the vagueness and implausibility of the partygoers' stories, the officers could have reasonably inferred that they were lying and that their lies suggested a guilty mind," Thomas wrote in his decision for the court. At any rate, the officers had qualified immunity for their actions, the court said.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor agreed with the outcome of the case but did not go along with all of Thomas's reasoning.
"This is an important ruling that means that police officers can continue to carry out their vital duty to protect public safety," said D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine.
The case arose in March 2008 after D.C. police officers were called to investigate noise complaints at a brick duplex on Anacostia Avenue. The question for the court was whether the officers acted legally and reasonably when they arrested 21 people for trespassing. Also at issue: whether they should still be shielded from a lawsuit and upward of $1 million in damages even if the officers were wrong and did not meet the "probable cause" standard.
Guests at the party told police they weren't certain who owned the sparsely furnished home and gave conflicting reasons for being there. Some said a woman named Peaches invited them to a bachelor party. Others said it was a birthday celebration.
Peaches, however, was not present. When officers reached the homeowner by phone, he said he had not signed off on a party.
All the charges eventually were dropped and 16 of the partygoers filed a lawsuit. A federal jury awarded $680,000 in damages — a figure that eventually reached nearly $1 million with the addition of legal costs.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sided with the partygoers, finding that the officers — Andre Parker and Anthony Campanale — were not immune from legal action for the unlawful arrests. The full D.C. Circuit declined to rehear the case, but Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote a dissent that invited the Supreme Court to weigh in.
Thomas said the scene at the house would have given any reasonable officer pause:
"The living room had been converted into a makeshift strip club. Strippers in bras and thongs, with cash stuffed in their garter belts, were giving lap dances. Upstairs, the officers found a group of men with a single, naked woman on a bare mattress — the only bed in the house — along with multiple open condom wrappers and a used condom."
Thomas and six other members of the court said the police officers had probable cause to make arrests, and, even if not, they had immunity because the law is not clear that police must accept a suspect's innocent explanation at face value.
Ginsburg thought Thomas's description of the case might have been a bit too vivid: "The court's account of the undisputed facts goes beyond those recited by the court of appeals." She agreed the officers had qualified immunity, but worried that the "court's jurisprudence . . . sets the balance too heavily in favor of police unaccountability to the detriment of Fourth Amendment protections" against unlawful seizure.
Peaches was never identified in court documents or proceedings. But after publicity from the case, people who knew Peaches contacted The Washington Post and identified her as Veronica Little, a bartender and entrepreneur who died in 2016.
Little had been a popular fixture at a now-shuttered gentlemen's club in Northeast Washington and often recruited the club's dancers to perform at parties she organized.
Friends of Peaches also solved the mystery of her nickname. Little, a friend said, was from Georgia.
The case is District of Columbia v. Wesby.
The court also announced Monday that it will hear a challenge from a timber company that had some of its land designated by the federal government as a protected habitat for an endangered species called the dusky gopher frog.
Weyerhaeuser says the warty amphibian (Rana sevosa) does not live within 50 miles of its nearly 1,600-acre parcel of land in Louisiana, and hasn't been seen in the state since 1965.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 found that the land, as well as parcels in neighboring Mississippi, could support the frog, which is now known to exist in only four locations in southern Mississippi.
The frog lives most of its life underground, according to briefs filed in the case, emerging only to breed in "ephemeral ponds." The temporary pools do not support fish, which would eat the frog's eggs, and the Louisiana property has a rare collection of the seasonal wet areas.
If the dusky gopher frog were introduced to the land, "the five ponds are in close enough proximity to each other that adult frogs could move between them and create a metapopulation, which increases the chances of the longterm survival of the population," the agency said.
A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld the wildlife service's decision, and the Trump administration is defending it at the Supreme Court.
But the timber company said the land, which it owns with another company, meets only one of the three conditions that the government itself said is required for the frog's survival.
The land "concededly contains no dusky gopher frogs and cannot provide habitat for them absent a radical change in land use because it lacks features necessary for their survival," the company told the court in its brief.
"The service concluded that this designation could cost $34 million in lost development value of the tract. But it found that this cost is not disproportionate to 'biological' benefits of designation," according to the company's brief.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and conservative states urged the Supreme Court to take the case. It is one of the rare instances in which those groups and the Trump administration are on opposite sides.
The case is Weyerhaeuser v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.