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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Immunity Shields N.H. for Faulty Investigation

(CN) - A man jailed on false allegations that he drugged, sexually assaulted and severely burned a woman cannot sue the police, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled.

Kenneth Lahm, of Tilton, N.H., was accused in 2008 of assaulting a woman in his home for three days after drugging her drink.

The alleged victim claimed that she left her beer unattended at a bar to go out for a cigarette, then went home with Lahm, where she drank two Red Bull and vodkas.

At that point she allegedly passed out and woke up three days later with severe burns and bruises on her body.

"I found I'm all burned and beaten and half-naked and I knew something was very wrong," she said, as reported by The Citizen.

Lahm was arrested and charged with second-degree assault. A $150,000 bond sprang Lahm after a weekend in jail, at which point he hired private investigators who interviewed his neighbors. These residents recalled seeing the alleged victim outside the house during the time she claimed to have been passed out.

Meanwhile a medical doctor and friend of Lahm's whom the investigators found said the alleged victim had spoken to him over the phone about her injuries and said they were caused by falling on a wooden stove.

This evidence led prosecutors to drop all charges against Lahm.

In a subsequent civil complaint against Tilton and the investigating officer Michael Farrington, Lahm said they had conducted a negligent investigation and violated his rights by causing him to serve jail time on trumped-up charges.

A Superior Court judge granted the defendants summary judgment, however, and the New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed, 5-0, Friday.

"Balanced against the social importance of Lahm's claimed interest is the considerable societal interest in immunizing police officers from 'extended liability,'" Judge Gary Hicks wrote for the court. "Were we to extend the scope of a police officer's duty to investigate beyond establishing probable cause, prior to arrest, 'liability would be unduly and indeed indefinitely extended' for police officers. Such an extension of liability is at odds with the well-established doctrines of probable cause and official immunity."

While acknowledging that Lahm was injured by the police officer's decision to arrest him on the sole testimony of the alleged victim, "the public simply cannot afford for those individuals charged with securing and preserving community safety to have their judgment shaded out of fear of subsequent lawsuits or to have their energies otherwise deflected by litigation, at times a lengthy and cumbersome process," the ruling states, quoting New Hampshire Supreme Court precedent.

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