The United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in District of Columbia v. Wesby on Monday, holding that police officers had probable cause to arrest 16 people for unlawful entry after finding them reveling in a vacant house without the permission of its owner. The court further held that even if one assumed the officers lacked probable cause, they were entitled to qualified immunity because there was no clearly established law that rendered their actions unreasonable. The D.C. Circuit and the trial court had ruled otherwise, leading to a compensatory damages award of nearly $700,000 for the plaintiffs.
While trial courts are regularly called upon to evaluate whether facts known to an officer provide probable cause of criminal activity, it is less common for the Supreme Court to engage in such factbound determinations. Thus, the analysis in Wesby, whose language doubtless will soon be cited in the North Carolina reporters, warrants a closer look.