When Police Are Right, But Cannot Arrest Suspects Because the Suspects Got the Facts Wrong

Criminal law is based on the subjective intent of the defendants. In other words, did the defendant intend to do what the law considers a crime? Intent can be very important, as it separates accidents in personal injury from vehicular murders in criminal law. However, this reliance on intent can produce contradictory results, where a defendant is guilt because of action, but is not guilty because they lacked criminal intent. The most famous example is when former FBI Director James Comey announced that there was not enough evidence Secretary Clinton did not intend to circumvent government transparency laws by using a private email server. However, there are less prolific cases where criminal intent is also the deciding factor between innocence and guilt.

What Happened: Bachelor Strip Club Party in D.C.

On March 16, 2008, about 1:00 a.m., Washington D.C. police received a complaint from neighbors about a loud party and potentially illegal activities in a property that had supposedly been vacant for several months. As the officers knocked on the house, they heard music playing and smelled marijuana. When the officers opened the door, several people inside scattered around the building. The house itself was “in disarray” and unfurnished. Police eventually found 21 people inside, including a man hiding in a closet. Several women were “dressed only in their bra with money hanging out of their garter belts” like “strip clubs.”

No one among the 21 people claimed to be the owner of the house or knew who the owner was. Several people claimed they were there for a birthday or bachelor party, but none of them knew who the bachelor was or whose birthday they were celebrating. A few of them claimed a woman named “Peaches” had given them permission to be in the house, but when officers called “Peaches,” she admitted she didn’t have the owner’s permission.  Eventually police got in contact with the homeowner, who explained that the house had been vacant since the last resident had passed away and that he had not given “Peaches” a lease for the house. The officers arrested everyone inside for disorderly conduct and unlawful entry, but prosecutors decline to press charges.

arrestOddly, this was not the end of the story. Shortly after the incident, 16 of the partygoers sued the D.C. police department because the officers lacked probable cause at the time prior to arrest. Since police had no way of knowing prior to entering the house that the people inside were not invited, they had no reason to suspect that the partygoers were trespassing. The plaintiffs won a total of $1 million against the police department and the city. A divided appeals court affirmed the judgment, but the case is now on the Supreme Court docket.

Factually Wrong, But Without Intent Means Not Guilty

Police cannot arrest suspects for any reason or no reason. Police must always have a “reasonable ground for belief of guilt” based on the “totality of the circumstances.” In other words, police must have evidence, based on the information at the time of the arrest, that the suspects have committed a crime. Obviously, what evidence or information is sufficient depends on the exact charges. With unlawful entry or criminal trespass, there must be evidence that the defendants were 1. Unlawfully on the property, 2. Without the owner’s consent, 3. The defendants knew or should have known they did not have permission to be there. The big argument is over the third element; whether the defendants knew or should have known they did not have permission to be on the property.

The fundamental assumption the officers made is that if the homeowner did not give “Peaches” permission to be in the house,  then the homeowner did not give permission for the partygoers to be in the house either. The partygoers clearly relied on “Peaches” apparent authority to be in the house. Unless the partygoers had a way of directing contacting the homeowner, their reliance on “Peaches” word was reasonable. The partygoers would have both subjectively and objectively believe they were not trespassing. In contrast, the officers arrested them based on the fact that legally and factually they had no right to be there.

This is a case where the defendants are right because they reasonably thought they had permission while the officers are right because factually they actually did not have permission. Criminal law, however, is concerned with what the defendant’s intended, not with who is legally right. However, the fact that the officers were right about the legal facts of the case does give rise to probable cause that the law might have been broken. Prosecutors were correct in not bringing charges, but the lower judges were incorrect in punishing the officers for their mistake.

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