Picture it: a home “nearly barren and in disarray,” littered with beer bottles, redolent of marijuana, and serving as the backdrop for a “makeshift strip club.” What could go wrong? Apparently, quite a bit – and in the recent case of the District of Columbia v. Wesby, the U.S. Supreme Court had the onerous task of unraveling the unexpectedly complex legal issues that arose out this house of revelry.
A search without a warrant
The case began around 1:00 AM on a March night in 2008. Several neighbors had alerted Washington, D.C. police of “illegal activity” and loud music emanating from the house, which had been vacant for months. Once police arrived, a partygoer opened the door and officers swiftly entered the building – cuing the first of many legal issues surrounding their actions that night.
Upon conducting a thorough – but warrantless – search of nearly every room on the property, and observing wall-to-wall “debauchery,” police began interviewing guests, seeking to determine who owned the house, if this party was authorized, and whether any crimes had been committed by those in attendance. Next police tracked down the lawful homeowner and confirmed that he did not, in fact, authorize a party in the home – and certainly did not consent to the revelry officers had stumbled upon. The officers then arrested all 21 partygoers, charging each with unlawful entry and disorderly conduct.
All charges were eventually dropped, but 16 of the 21 attendees insisted that the officers had no legal right to enter the home – and therefore the subsequent arrests amounted to unlawful false imprisonment stemming from an unconstitutional search and seizure. At trial, the court found in favor of the partygoers, agreeing that the officers had no right to make an arrest, and awarded nearly $1 million in damages and fees.
Supreme court case and verdict
Following a series of lower-level appeals, the case finally found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the attorney representing the police advanced the controversial argument that the partiers had no logical reason to believe they were in the vacant home lawfully, which gave the police probable cause to search the premises.
The Supreme Court began its analysis with the probable cause issue, leading off with a reminder that the U.S. Constitution protects us all from “unreasonable” searches of private property. Generally, police need a warrant to conduct a search; however, several exceptions apply. One such exception, at issue here, allows police to conduct a search if a crime is committed directly in an officer’s presence. Officers maintained that all 21 partygoers were committing a crime in their presence – unlawful entry – and probable cause was clearly established. Partygoers argued they had no reason to believe they were committing any crimes, having simply responded to an invitation to a party.
The Court wasn’t buying it and unanimously held that the officers were not under any legal duty to obtain a warrant in this situation. The Court said the police were permitted to rely on the “totality of the circumstances” to conclude that the party guests should have known they were in someone’s vacant house without permission. The Court relied on several facts to make this determination, including the lack of furniture, the absence of clothes in the closet, and presence of virtually no possessions other than a few chairs and a mattress. Given this, the Court decided that police were reasonable in concluding that partygoers were knowingly committing the crime of unlawful entry, noting that “[m]ost homeowners do not live in near-barren houses. And most homeowners do not invite people over to use their living room as a strip club, to have sex in their bedroom, to smoke marijuana inside, and to leave their floors filthy.” I guess when you put it like that….
In all seriousness, however, the impact of this decision could be far reaching, as the Court has found that police may essentially use their own common sense – a highly subjective assessment – to determine if individuals are even aware they are committing a crime. If police reason that suspects should be aware – given the circumstances – that what they’re doing is illegal, a warrant is no longer required. Time will tell how this standard will play out in cases involving people from other countries, individuals with physical or mental disabilities, or those who truly believed their actions were consistent with the law.