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District of Columbia v. Wesby

Court Type: U.S. Supreme Court
Status: Closed (Judgment)
Last Update: September 20, 2017

What's at Stake

Whether police officers who lack probable cause to arrest because they have insufficient evidence to support each necessary element of the offense – here, a culpable state of mind – can nonetheless be protected by qualified immunity.

In this case, police suspected several people at a party of trespassing. The partygoers explained to the police that they thought they had permission to be on the premises and gave the police the name of the person who had invited them and granted permission. The police ignored or discounted this evidence and arrested several people. The charges were dropped, and several arrestees sued. In addition to arguing that the arrests were supported by probable cause, the police claimed that they were entitled to qualified immunity because the law was not clearly established that wrongful intent was a necessary element to prove unlawful entry. The district court and court of appeals held that the police lacked probable cause to arrest, and that the police were not entitled to qualified immunity because it was objectively unreasonable under clearly established law to make an arrest for unlawful entry in the absence of any evidence of wrongful intent. Petitioners sought review in the Supreme Court, which was granted. In July 2017 the ACLU, the ACLU of D.C., Mayer Brown, and the Yale Law School Supreme Court clinic filed an amicus brief in support of Respondents. The ACLU argued that the Supreme Court should not further expand the doctrine of qualified immunity in the context of the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause requirement, as this would add to the already troubling limitations placed by the Court on available remedies in Section 1983 claims. We explain how broadening qualified immunity doctrine here would be an even sharper divergence from the principles underlying Congress’s enactment of Section 1983 – to provide injured individuals the ability to obtain redress for constitutional violations and to hold government officers accountable for their unconstitutional actions – as well as from the principles undergirding the Framers’ intent in drafting the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable seizures.

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