On March 6, 2008, a caller phoned the police with a complaint of a party that included loud music and illegal activities, at a home in Northeast D.C. As in Washington, D.C. A local neighborhood commissioner phoned the police and stated that he knew the home was vacant and had been for several months. Officers arrived on the scene and interviewed several neighbors. The neighbors confirmed that the home had been empty. When the police approached the home, they heard loud music coming from inside.
The officers knocked at the front door. A man came to the window, looked out, and then ran upstairs. Okay, a little strange. One of the occupants then opened the door and the police entered the residence. Their immediate impression of the inside of the home was that the it was “in disarray,” and “looked like a vacant property.” The police smelled sweet cheeba in the air and observed beer bottles and cups of booze scattered around the floor. In fact, it was noted that one of the partygoers refused to sit on the floor while being questioned because it was so filthy. Surprisingly, the home did have working electricity and plumbing. However, the entire downstairs furniture group consisted of nothing more than padded metal chairs. To the occupants’ credit, there were blinds on the windows, some food in the fridge, and toiletries in the, well…toilet. But wait, there’s more.
The “living room” had been converted into a strip club. Women, milling around wearing bras and thongs, were socializing with the patrons. The scantily clad women had cash stuffed into their thongs and garter belts. Several women also captivated the audience by giving lap dances. The patrons had cash and cocktails in each hand. When the partygoers finally took notice of the police, they “scattered into other parts of the house.” In other words, they beat feet.
Meanwhile, upstairs the police found a naked woman and several men in one of the bedrooms. The bedroom consisted of a bare mattress laying on the floor, lit candles around the room, and condom wrappers scattered about. (This was the only mattress in the house.) Just to keep it classy, a soiled condom was displayed on the windowsill. One of the guests was found hiding in an upstairs closet, and yet another had barricaded himself into a bathroom and refused to exit.
Surprisingly, of the twenty-one people at the home that were found and interviewed, the police stated they had not received a single “clear or consistent story.” Several versions included: they were there for a bachelor party (with no bachelor). They were invited but they didn’t know who had invited them. They were invited by “Peaches” or “Tasty,” who were renting the home. The previous owner died, and Peaches was renting the home from the dead man’s son. (There were no boxes or moving supplies.) Of note, no one knew Peaches’ real identity and conveniently, Peaches was not home.
Taking the initiative, an officer asked a woman to call Peaches on her phone. When Peaches answered, the officer asked to speak with her. Peaches then explained that she had just left the party to go to the store. When the officer asked her to come back to the party, she refused because she thought she would be arrested.
When questioned on the phone, Peaches first offered that she was renting the home and the owner was “fixing it up for her.” Duh, obvious from the soiled condom. Peaches also informed the police that her guests were given permission to have a party. The Popo asked her who had given her permission to use the home, Peaches crawfished a bit and then hung up. The Popo called her again. Peaches then went on an angry rant and yelled at the police telling them she had permission to use the home and then…hung up. The Popo called her again. She answered, again. Okay. At this point, Peaches admitted that she did not have permission to use the home.
Next, those sneaky cops cooked up a scheme to call the owner. The owner said he had been trying to negotiate a lease with Peaches, but they had not been able to reach an agreement. But had he given permission to Peaches and friends to be in the house? Nope. For a bachelor party? Nope. The police then decided to take the twenty-one people to jail, book them, and charge them with disorderly conduct.
Okay, so if this was Texas, as in Montgomery County, Texas, this would have been a burglary of a habitation charge and those twenty-one people would by looking at 2-20 years in the Big House. But it wasn’t Texas, and those lucky individuals were only charged with disorderly conduct. Disorderly Conduct in Texas is a Class C misdemeanor, unless it involves a gun, which then becomes a Class B misdemeanor. Whoopee doo. You pay a fine and move along.
But wait. It’s Washington, D.C. So, what did they do? They sued! Reasoning? They were arrested without probable cause. So, what happened at the local court you ask? They won. In fact, they were awarded $680,000 plus attorneys’ fees which amounted to well over one million dollars. In the course of time since 2008, this case ended up winding its way all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States.
As some background, in any case for an officer to have probable cause to arrest, the law refers to a reasonable person standard. As in, would a reasonable police officer have probable cause to arrest. This standard requires only “a probability or substantial chance of criminal activity, not an actual showing of such activity.” In the words of the Supreme Court, “it is not a high bar.” The Court looking at a totality of the circumstances surrounding these arrests thought it was an easy call for the partygoers to know they were taking advantage of a vacant house. In the end, the Court found the officers had probable cause to arrest the partygoers. No surprise there.
So, what do you do in Texas if you are arrested for setting up a makeshift strip club in a vacant house? You call an attorney. Not just any attorney, you need to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney. Although the story above is amusing, it would not have played out that way in Montgomery County, Harris County, Walker County, etc. If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime, call our office for a consultation today.
Ron Voyles is an attorney and a chiropractor with over twenty years of experience in the litigation of personal injury and the defense of drug and alcohol crimes. Ron practices in Montgomery, Harris, Walker, Grimes, Madison, San Jacinto, and Leon Counties.