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Center Advocates for State and Local Governments discusses the SLLC’s mission, history, current amicus activity

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Recent Court Rulings

District of Columbia v. Wesby

In District of Columbia v. Wesby the majority of the Supreme Court ruled D.C. police officers had probable cause to arrest individuals for holding a “raucous, late-night party in a house they did not have permission to enter.” All nine of the Justices ruled in favor of granting qualified immunity to the police officers. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case supporting D.C.  

Police were called to a home in D.C. around 1AM based on complaints of loud music and illegal activity. The house was dirty with no furniture downstairs except a few metal chairs. In the living room the officers found “a makeshift strip club”; they found “more debauchery upstairs.” While many partygoers said they were there for a bachelor party no one could identify the bachelor.

Two of the women working the party said that “Peaches” was renting the house and had given them permission to be there. Police officers called Peaches who told them she gave the partygoers permission to use the house. But she ultimately admitted that she had no permission to use the house herself; she was in the process of renting it. The landlord confirmed by phone that Peaches hadn’t signed a lease. The partygoers were charged with, but never prosecuted for, disorderly conduct.

The partygoers sued D.C. for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment. The D.C. Circuit concluded there was no probable cause to arrest them. Peaches invited them—so the officers had no reason to believe the partygoers “knew or should have known” their “entry was unwanted.”

The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Thomas, looked at the totality of the circumstances and concluded police officers made an “entirely reasonable inference” that the partygoers “were knowingly taking advantage of a vacant house as a venue for their late-night party.” The totality of the circumstances included:  the condition of the house (filthy and empty); the partygoers’ conduct (makeshift strip club); their reaction to police presence (scattering, hiding in closets); their answers to questions (vague and implausible); and Peaches’ invitation (from a confirmed liar).

State and local government officials can be sued for money damages in their individual capacity if they violate a person’s constitutional rights. Qualified immunity protects government officials from such lawsuits where the law they violated isn’t “clearly established.”

The D.C. Circuit denied the police officers qualified immunity in this case. According to Justice Thomas by treated the invitation as “uncontroverted evidence” of lawful entry the D.C. Circuit incorrectly “assumed that the officers could not infer the partygoers’ intent from other circumstances” and incorrectly “assumed that the officers could not disbelieve the partygoers’ story.”

In the same vein, the SLLC amicus brief argued the police officers should have been able to doubt the partygoers claim they had permission to be at the house because circumstantial evidence indicated otherwise.

 In concluding the officers should have been granted qualified immunity (even assuming they lacked probable cause) the Court stated that “existing precedent would have given the officers reason to doubt that they had to accept the partygoers’ assertion of a bona fide belief. The D.C. Court of Appeals has held that officers are not required to take a suspect’s innocent explanation at face value.” 

John J. KorzenWake Forest University School of Law Appellate Advocacy Clinic, wrote the SLLC brief which was joined by the National Association of Counties, National League of CitiesInternational City/County Management AssociationInternational Municipal Lawyers Association, and the National Sheriffs Association.          

Artis v. District of Columbia

The Supreme Court held 5-4 in Artis v. District of Columbia that “tolled” under 28 U.S.C 1367(d) means suspended or that the clock is stopped. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief arguing in favor of a different definition of “tolled.” Justice Ginsburg cited to the SLLC brief once in her majority opinion. Justice Gorsuch cited to it or discussed it four times in his dissenting opinion.   

A year after the fact, Stephanie Artis sued the District of Columbia in federal district court bringing a number of federal and state law claims related to her termination as a health inspector. It took the federal court over two and a half years to rule on her claims. It dismissed her sole federal claim and declined to exercise jurisdiction over her remaining state law claims.

28 U.S.C 1367(d) states that statutes of limitations for state law claims pending in federal court shall be “tolled” for a period of 30 days after they are dismissed (unless state law provides a longer tolling period).

While Artis was waiting for the federal court to rule, the three-year statutes of limitations on all her state law claims passed. She waited 59 days to refile her claims in state court after the federal court dismissed her case.

The question in this case was whether Artis’s lawsuit in state court was timely. The answer depends on how “tolled” is defined.  

Under the stop-the-clock approach the state statutes of limitations freeze on the day the federal suit is filed and unfreeze with the addition of 30 days when the federal lawsuit is dismissed. Under this theory Artis would have about two years to refile her lawsuit in state court.

Under the grace-period theory if the state statutes of limitations would have expired while the federal case was pending, a litigant has 30 days from federal court dismissal to refile in state court. Under this theory Artis’s lawsuit in state court was time barred because she waited longer the 30 days to refile.

The Supreme Court adopted the stop-the-clock reading. Among other reasons, it note that Black’s Law Dictionary defines “toll” as “to suspend or stop temporarily,” legislatures know how to write statutes adopting a grace-period, and D.C. “has not identified any federal statute in which a grace-period meaning has been ascribed to the word ‘tolled’ or any word similarly rooted.”

Two of Justice Gorsuch’s four citations to the SLLC amicus brief highlight its argument that the Court’s approach “will require state courts to entertain state law claims that state law deems untimely not only by weeks or months but by many years, as 24 States, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the Council of State Governments warn us.”

Katharine Mapes, William Huang, and Jeffrey Bayne, Spiegel & McDiarmid wrote the SLLC’s brief which the following organizations joined:  the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments, the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities, the United States Conference of Mayors, the International City/County Management Association, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association.