AREAS OF INTEREST: Unlawful arrest; malicious prosecution; qualified immunity; official immunity.
LEGAL IMPACT: Presence of probable cause based on police officer’s reasonable belief entitled officer to immunity from Fourth Amendment unlawful arrest claims and state law malicious prosecution claims arising from arrest and prosecution for witness tampering even though charges were ultimately nol prossed.
CASE CAPTION: Crystal Moses v. Mark Mele, United States District Court, District of New Hampshire, No. 10-CV-253-PB (4/24/12)
Catherine Sims and her boyfriend, Kyle Moses, were involved in an automobile accident which was investigated by Officer Mele. Based on information gathered at the scene, Officer Mele arrested Kyle for his conduct before, during and after the accident.
A few days after the accident Officer Mele called Sims and asked her to come to the police station to answer some questions. Kyle’s mother, Moses, accompanied Sims to the station. When Officer Mele tried to speak to Sims alone, Moses protested and the situation became heated. After Moses escorted Sims out of the police station and back to their car in the parking lot she was arrested and subsequently indicted for witness tampering. Moses filed a motion to dismiss the charges and the State eventually decided not to proceed with the prosecution.
Moses then filed a civil complaint against Officer Mele for unlawful arrest under the Fourth Amendment and for malicious prosecution. Officer Mele moved for summary judgment.
HOLDING: Summary judgment granted.
Since the absence of probable cause is an element of both a false arrest claim and a malicious prosecution claim, the central issue in the case was whether Officer Mele had probable cause to arrest and prosecute Moses for witness tampering. The court found that Officer Mele could have reasonably believed that Moses tried to prevent the interview from taking place in order to protect her son and, therefore, the presence of probable cause to arrest her for witness tampering was at least arguable.
As a result, the court ruled that Officer Mele was shielded from the unlawful arrest suit by qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects public officials from personal liability that arises out of their performance of discretionary functions, and applies when they make “reasonable but mistaken judgments.”
The court also ruled that Officer Mele retained official immunity from liability on the state-law malicious prosecution claim. Official immunity protects government officials or employees from personal liability for discretionary actions taken by them within the course of their employment or official duties. It applies when discretionary acts made within the scope of one’s official duties are not made in a wanton or reckless manner. The New Hampshire Supreme Court has indicated that government employees should be immune from prosecution if they acted with a reasonable belief in the lawfulness of their conduct. Noting that the Supreme Court has not yet determined whether the “reasonable belief” standard for official immunity has both objective and subjective components, the court concluded that both tests were satisfied in this case.