WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that District of Columbia police were entitled to arrest late-night partygoers in a vacant house engaged in what Justice Clarence Thomas called, in announcing the decision from the bench, “utter Bacchanalia.”
The court also agreed to hear a case on the federal government’s efforts to protect an endangered animal, the dusky gopher frog.
The decision concerning the party, District of Columbia v. Wesby, included an unusually vivid and extended description of what Thomas called “debauchery” in his majority opinion.
The case arose from a 2008 complaint about loud music coming from a vacant house in northeastern Washington. Police officers found “a makeshift strip club,” Thomas wrote, with several women “wearing only bras and thongs, with cash tucked into their garter belts.”
The officers smelled marijuana and found beer, liquor, and condoms.
There were 21 people in the house, and they gave varying accounts about who had invited them. Some said they were attending a bachelor party but could not name the bachelor. (“People normally do not throw a bachelor party without a bachelor,” Thomas wrote.)
Others partygoers said that a woman named “Peaches” or “Tasty” was renting the house and had invited them. A police officer called the woman, who gave evasive answers and declined to return to the party.
Police then arrested the partygoers for unlawful entry and later charged them with disorderly conduct. The charges were eventually dropped.
Sixteen of the partygoers sued, saying there had been no probable cause to arrest them. A trial judge agreed, saying there was no evidence that the partygoers knew or should have known that they were trespassing.
The judge awarded them damages and legal fees of almost $1 million, and a divided appeals court panel affirmed.
Thomas, writing for seven justices, said that in the circumstances police officers had been entitled to assume that “the partygoers were knowingly taking advantage of a vacant house as a venue for their late-night party.”
Some of them fled or hid, he wrote, which was “an indication that they knew they were not supposed to be there.”
There may have been innocent explanations for particular responses, Thomas wrote. But taken as a whole, the scene at the party was enough to provide probable cause for the arrests.
“The circumstances here certainly suggested criminal activity,” he wrote. “As explained, the officers found a group of people who claimed to be having a bachelor party with no bachelor, in a near-empty house, with strippers in the living room and sexual activity in the bedroom, and who fled at the first sign of police.”
In any event, he added, officers were entitled to immunity from the lawsuit because there was no Supreme Court decision clearly establishing that the arrests were unlawful. In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined only that part of Thomas’s opinion.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also voted with the majority but did not embrace its reasoning. She suggested that the court should revise its approach to such cases. “The court’s jurisprudence, I am concerned, sets the balance too heavily in favor of police unaccountability to the detriment of Fourth Amendment protection,” Ginsburg wrote.
In other action Monday, the court also agreed to hear a case on the habitat of an endangered animal, the dusky gopher frog, in Weyerhauser Co. v. US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The federal government designated private land in Louisiana as “critical habitat” for the frog, limiting the ability of the owners to develop the land and by one account potentially costing them about $34 million.
The landowners argued that the designation makes no sense, as the frogs are not currently present and the land is not a suitable habitat for them in any event. “The frog does not live there, cannot live there, and will not live there in the future,” the landowners told the Supreme Court.
The government responded that the land was the best choice for an effort to protect the frog.
The landowners’ objection that their land “is not suited in all respects for immediate occupation by the frog,” the government’s lawyers wrote, “overlooks the substantial practical challenges inherent in the identification of critical habitat for endangered species.
Many species are endangered precisely because their ideal habitat has been severely diminished or eliminated altogether.”
“Where optimal habitat is unavailable,” the brief said, “the service acts appropriately in prioritizing areas with those features that are rarest or most difficult to reproduce through human intervention — here, the unique ephemeral ponds necessary for the frog’s breeding — while ensuring that any deficiencies in those areas could be addressed with ‘reasonable effort.’ ”