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January 19, 2017

SCOTUS adds a qualified immunity case to its docket

Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog has this new post explaining why the Justices issued a couple cert orders today and detailing the particulars of the two cases taken up by the Court.  Here is part of that post that should interesting criminal justice fans:

With the Supreme Court closed tomorrow for the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, the justices met today, one day early, for their private conference.  One week after adding 16 new cases to their docket, today the justices granted review in two more — potentially filling out their merits docket for the term.

The first grant came in District of Columbia v. Wesby, a case that presents important questions regarding the assessment of probable cause by police officers and qualified immunity.  The case arose when police officers in Washington responded to a noise complaint about a vacant house, where they found scantily clad women and the smell of marijuana. No one seemed to know who owned the house or precisely what the occasion was, but some of the partygoers told police that they had been invited by someone named “Peaches” or “Tasty” — who was not at the party, but who admitted that she did not have the owner’s permission to use the house.

 The partygoers were arrested for trespassing, but no charges were ever brought against them. The partygoers then filed a lawsuit, in which they alleged that the police lacked probable cause to arrest them because they had told police officers that they had been invited to the house and therefore did not intend to trespass.

The federal trial court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with the partygoers and further ruled that the police officers were not entitled to qualified immunity. The court of appeals denied the city’s motion for rehearing en banc; in dissent from that denial, Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote (among other things) that this “should be a fairly easy case for qualified immunity.”

The court had relisted Wesby a whopping eight times. Multiple relists can often signal either that the justices are considering a summary reversal — that is, without briefing or oral argument on the merits — of the lower court’s decision or that a justice is writing a dissent from the denial of certiorari, but today the justices instead agreed to review the case on the merits.

January 19, 2017 at 06:04 PM | Permalink


I admit to a level of surprise that they took this case. Ultimately qualified immunity cases are cases of mixed facts and law and the facts of this case are bizarre and turn on hypertechncial aspects of DC's code. I can't see how, even resolving the case for the officers, any opinion will result in useful law for the rest of the country.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 19, 2017 8:49:35 PM

Looking at the lower court opinion, this case could easily have been a summary reversal (law not sufficiently clear). My hunch is that the issue that the court wants to look at is the role of suspect statements at scene in terms of probable cause to arrest -- whether a claim of right by a suspect eliminates probable cause, especially when some of the statements seem less than credible to the officer. Trial court granted summary judgment to plaintiff's on facts that the Supreme Court might think is enough for probable cause (the 4 dissenting judges at the DC Circuit seemed to think so).

Posted by: tmm | Jan 20, 2017 10:45:37 AM

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