William Baer v. James Leach

Officer Not Liable for Conducting Arrest at Public Meeting
U.S. District Court for New Hampshire, Opinion No. 2015 DNH 214
Tuesday, November 24, 2015

In this case, the court held that a Gilford police officer did have qualified immunity for arresting an individual at a school board meeting. The individual, Baer, was arrested for disorderly conduct pursuant to RSA 644:2, II(e), III(b), and III(c)  after he violated several rules of the school board’s public comment session.

Qualified immunity shields governments officials performing discretionary functions from liability for civil damages as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Essentially, it allows officials to make “reasonable but mistaken judgments.” In determining whether qualified immunity applies to a given situation, courts employ a two-prong test: (1) whether the plaintiff can produce evidence of a violation of a constitutional right and (2) whether that right was “clearly established” at the time of the alleged violation.

The court determined that the officer did not violate a clearly established right when he arrested Baer for disorderly conduct. To be clearly established, the right must have been “sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in the defendant’s [officer’s] shoes would have understood that he was violating it.” The plaintiff here could not establish a violation of a clearly established right because the presence of probable cause for arrest was “at least arguable” based on the relevant facts known to the officer. Specifically, the officer had observed Baer disregarding the rules governing the public meeting—namely, that public comment was not a “Question and Answer” session and subsequently by interrupting after his allotted time had ended. Furthermore, when the board chair tried to regain order multiple times in order to allow others to speak, Baer continued to interrupt, mocking them and stating “why don’t you arrest me?”  These facts demonstrated to Leach, the observing officer, that Baer was disrupting the meeting. Qualified immunity also protected the officer for the arrest for failure “to comply with a lawful order of a peace officer” based on Baer’s course of conduct and his persistent refusal to respect the chair’s orders. RSA 644:2, II(e).

Learn More in Court's Opinion.