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Supreme Court Case Asks: How Much Do Partygoers Need To Know About The Party House?


The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week. We told you about one of the cases on our previous program. It was about a constitutional challenge to partisan gerrymandering. But another case of interest involves a raucous party in Washington, D.C., and whether the police could arrest the 21 invited guests for trespassing. As NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports, it seemed to evoke some interesting reactions from the justices.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: This was no ordinary wild party. It included strippers, booze, marijuana smoke - though no drugs were found - and a host named Peaches, who issued the invitation to her pals while she was ostensibly still in the process of negotiating the terms of renting the place. The legal problem is that when the cops arrived, they arrested everyone in sight, including one guy they found in a closet.

They hauled 21 people down to the police station and charged them all with trespassing because the police believed the house was supposed to be vacant. All charges were later dropped, but 16 of the 21 who had been arrested sued for false arrest and won. The city appealed. And at the Supreme Court, if the legal questions were dry, the argument was not. Justice Sonia Sotomayor started off skeptically.


SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Someone invites me into what they claim is their home or their place of living, I don't ask to look at their lease.

TOTENBERG: Lawyers for the District of Columbia said two of those who called to complain about the partiers said the house was supposed to be vacant. And the cops said that it looked that way - sparsely furnished and very dirty. But under further questioning, they conceded the utilities were on, the refrigerator full and the bathrooms stocked. Justice Stephen Breyer pursued the point.


STEPHEN BREYER: Today, younger people frequently say, hey, there's a party at Joe's (ph) house. And before you know it, 50 people go to Joe's house. They don't really ask themselves, does Joe own the house or rent the house or something? It's Joe's house.

TOTENBERG: Justice Kagan picked up the thread a bit wistfully.


ELENA KAGAN: When looked at from the reasonable partygoers' view, there are these parties that once long ago I used to be invited to...


KAGAN: ...Where you didn't - don't know the host, but you know Joe is having a party. And can I say that long, long ago, marijuana was maybe present at those parties? And, you know, it just is not obvious that the reasonable partygoer is supposed to walk into this apartment and say, got to get out of here. It seems a little bit hard that they're subject to arrest.

TOTENBERG: There was, of course, much more to the argument, including the likelihood that the cops may at least win on procedural grounds. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.