WASHINGTON — A late-night party that turned a vacant Washington home into a busy strip club was at the center of a Supreme Court argument Wednesday, prompting the justices to discuss strippers, marijuana and a party host named “Peaches.”
At one point, Justice Stephen Breyer created a fictional party host named Joe to probe issues in the case, which revolves around whether police had sufficient reason to arrest the partygoers for trespassing.
“I am told … younger people frequently say, hey, there’s a party at Joe’s house. And before you know it, 50 people go to Joe’s house. And they all, they don’t really ask themselves does Joe own the house or rent it or something,” Breyer said.
The case the justices were hearing involves arrests police made back in 2008 when responding to calls from neighbors complaining about illegal activity at the vacant house. Police arrived to find the home had been turned into something resembling a strip club.
Music was playing. People were drinking. And scantily clad women were performing lap dances wearing cash-stuffed garter belts. Photos from the case show at least three women, one in a pink crocheted top and short skirt.
Partygoers told conflicting stories about the party’s occasion. A woman named Peaches, who wasn’t there, was identified by some as the party’s host. Reached by phone, Peaches eventually told police she had invited people to the home but didn’t have the homeowner’s approval to use the place. A total of 21 people were arrested for trespassing, though charges were later dropped.
Many of them later sued police over the arrests and were awarded $680,000 plus attorney’s fees.
In addition to deciding whether the officers had sufficient reason to arrest the partygoers, the court also will determine whether the officers should be shielded from liability even if their actions are found to violate the law. The U.S. government and more than two dozen states are supporting the officers.
Justice Elena Kagan tapped her own experience in assessing the situation.
“There are these parties that, once long ago, I used to be invited to where you didn’t … know the host, but you know Joe is having a party. And I can say that long, long ago, marijuana was maybe present at those parties?” she said.
Kagan expressed skepticism that police were right to arrest the partygoers, as did Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“Twenty-one people en masse arrested for trespassing for going to a party. Does that feel right?” Sotomayor asked Todd S. Kim, the lawyer representing the District of Columbia and its police officers. She later added: “If police officers arrived at a wealthy home and it was white teenagers having a party … I doubt very much those kids would be arrested.”
Important to the case is whether the partiers knew or should have known they were trespassing on the property, a brick duplex in what attorneys said was a low-income neighborhood in northeast Washington. The partiers contend they thought they were Peaches’ guests.
Police argue they knew or should have known they were committing a crime by being in the vacant house — pointing to how partygoers scattered when police arrived and to disarray in the house, which was described as nearly empty with a mattress on the floor and some folding chairs.
But Sotomayor said parties result in “disarray.” And Justice Neil Gorsuch, the newest addition to the bench who moved from Colorado in the past year, suggested the lack of furniture wasn’t a particularly persuasive argument, particularly since party host Peaches talked about being a new tenant.
“We all live with folding chairs for a period of time when we move,” he said.
The justices at times drew laughs while sorting out details of the party.
“Just out of curiosity, who is the bachelor at this bachelor party?” asked Justice Samuel Alito. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg soon followed with: “I thought some said it was a birthday party.” And Justice Anthony Kennedy asked: “So Peaches is the host at a bachelor party. Is that it?”
The case is District of Columbia v. Wesby, 15-1485.
Follow Jessica Gresko on Twitter: @jessicagresko