The party in the otherwise quiet Washington neighborhood had gotten loud by the time D.C. police officers Andre Parker and Anthony Campanale arrived.
Several women were dressed only in bras and thongs, with money in their garter belts. The unoccupied residence in Anacostia appeared to have been turned into a strip club, the officers thought. The partygoers said they had been invited by a woman named “Peaches,” although some knew her as “Tasty.” In the end, Parker and Campanale arrested 21 people.
The legal wrangling that followed those arrests in 2008 resulted in a nearly $1 million award against the officers and the city, and divided the judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. On Thursday, the case made it onto the Supreme Court’s docket.
The court announced that it will consider whether there was probable cause for the officers to make the arrests — the partygoers said they were invited to the house, and they were never prosecuted — and whether the officers deserve immunity for their actions.
The case appears to have split the Supreme Court justices. They considered nine times whether to accept the case before agreeing to review it.
It is unclear whether it will be considered in the court’s current term or held over for the term that begins in October.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine told the justices in a petition that the court of appeals decision — finding that the officers lacked probable cause for the arrests because the partygoers said they were not trespassing but were guests of Peaches — failed to reflect “the real world in which police officers function.”
“The court of appeals’ decision undercuts an officer’s ability to use his or her experience, judgment, and direct observations to assess the credibility of a suspect’s innocent explanation,” Racine wrote. “Officers will second-guess themselves and forgo enforcement of the law, fearing that a judge, far removed from the scene and years later, might make a different credibility judgment and then hold them personally liable.”
Sixteen of the 21 people arrested sued after no charges were brought. A district judge ruled against the police officers, saying that “nothing about what the police learned at the scene suggests that the [partygoers] knew or should have known that they were entering” against the property owner’s will.
After a trial, the partygoers were awarded $680,000 and the police officers were ordered to pay attorney costs, which brought the total to just under $1 million.
A divided panel of the appeals court upheld the award. And two judicial heavyweights on the court, liberal Cornelia T.L. Pillard and conservative Brett M. Kavanaugh, squared off over whether the entire circuit should review the decision.
Kavanaugh said the panel’s opinion eroded the protection for police officers who may make an honest mistake when trying to carry out their duties.
“Two D.C. police officers have been held liable for a total of almost $1 million,” Kavanaugh said in a statement joined by three other judges who wanted to rehear the case. “That equates to about 20 years of after-tax income for the officers, not to mention the harm to their careers. For what? For arresting for trespassing a group of people who were partying late at night with drugs and strippers in a vacant house that the partiers did not own or rent.”
But Pillard replied that the panel’s opinion did not change existing protections for police officers at all.
“Our opinion does not ignore or weaken that important protection, which gives officers the necessary ‘breathing room’ to perform their difficult, dangerous jobs and safeguard the public,” she said. “It simply finds that a reasonable officer could not conclude, based on the information before these particular officers, that there was probable cause.”
Ted J. Williams, an attorney for Theodore Wesby and the others who were arrested, had told the Supreme Court that it did not warrant the justices’ attention.
Under D.C. law, a person is guilty of unlawful entry only if he knew or should have known that he was entering the property “against the will of the lawful occupant or of the person lawfully in charge” of the property, Williams wrote. In this case, the partygoers had been invited by Peaches, “a woman whom they reasonably believed to be its lawful occupant.”
The case is District of Columbia v. Wesby.