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Trahan v. Melancon

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division

February 21, 2017




         Currently pending is the re-urged motion for summary judgment (Rec. Doc. 66), which was filed on behalf of the defendants, former Acadia Parish Sheriff Wayne Melancon, Deputy Sheriff Tyler Broussard, and former Deputy Sheriff Conan Smith.[1]Considering the evidence, the law, and the arguments of the parties, and for the reasons fully explained below, the motion is GRANTED IN PART and the plaintiff's federal claims will be dismissed.


         This lawsuit was brought by Shelby Trahan, individually and on behalf of his deceased father, Adam James Trahan (hereinafter “Mr. Trahan”) who died after being shot by Deputy Broussard. The shooting occurred during an altercation inside the residence occupied by the decedent and his girlfriend Tammy Bankston on April 6, 2013. In his original complaint, the plaintiff alleged that the defendants violated Mr. Trahan's Constitutional rights, and he asserted state-law claims of assault and battery. The plaintiff also asserted claims, under Louisiana law, for Mr. Trahan's survival between the time he was injured and his death and for his allegedly wrongful death. In his first amended complaint, the plaintiff added a claim against Acadian Ambulance Service, but that claim was dismissed (Rec. Docs. 62, 63).[2]

         The defendants contend that the deputies did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they entered Mr. Trahan's residence because the situation presented exigent circumstances, that the force used by the deputies was reasonable under the circumstances, and that the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, protecting them from suit. The defendants further contend that the claims asserted against Sheriff Melancon and Deputy Smith are unsupported by factual evidence in the record, that there is no basis for awarding punitive damages, and no evidence to support a spoliation claim. They seek dismissal of all of the claims asserted against them in this lawsuit.

         The plaintiff contends that there is a genuine issue of material fact concerning (1) whether Ms. Bankston or Mr. Trahan had a preexisting relationship with Deputy Smith; (2) the deputies' arrival at and analysis of the scene; and (3) what happened inside the home at the time of the shooting. The plaintiff further contends that the deputies' warrantless entry into the residence and the use of deadly force violated Mr. Trahan's Constitutional rights; that the unreasonableness of the deputies' actions precludes qualified immunity; and that the unreasonableness of the deputies' actions mandates an award of punitive damages.


         A. Motion for Summary Judgment Standard

         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A fact is material if proof of its existence or nonexistence might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under the applicable governing law.[3] A genuine issue of material fact exists if a reasonable jury could render a verdict for the nonmoving party.[4]

         The party seeking summary judgment has the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those parts of the record that demonstrate the absence of genuine issues of material fact.[5] If the moving party carries its initial burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue of a material fact.[6]

         All facts and inferences are construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, [7] but the nonmoving party may not rely on mere allegations in the pleading; rather, the nonmovant must respond to the motion for summary judgment by setting forth particular facts indicating that there is a genuine issue for trial.[8] After the nonmovant has been given an opportunity to raise a genuine factual issue, if no reasonable juror could find for the nonmovant, summary judgment will be granted.[9]

         If the dispositive issue is one on which the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may satisfy its burden by pointing out that there is insufficient proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim.[10] The motion should be granted if the nonmoving party cannot produce evidence to support an essential element of its claim.[11]

         B. The Standard for Evaluating a Section 1983 Claim

         The complaint states that the plaintiff's claims are brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 as well as under Louisiana law. Section 1983 provides a cause of action against anyone who “under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State” violates another person's Constitutional rights. Section 1983 is not itself a source of substantive rights; it merely provides a method for vindicating federal rights conferred elsewhere.[12] To state a section 1983 claim, a plaintiff must: (1) allege a violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, and (2) demonstrate that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.[13] In this case, the defendants do not contest whether Sheriff Melancon, Deputy Broussard, or Deputy Smith acted under color of law at any relevant time, but they do challenge whether the defendants' actions or omissions are Constitutional violations.

         C. The Standard for Evaluating Qualified Immunity

         Qualified immunity, an affirmative defense to a suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, protects government officials in their individual capacity, while performing discretionary functions, not only from suit, but from “liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”[14] Qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”[15]

         Although qualified immunity is “nominally an affirmative defense, the plaintiff has the burden to negate the defense once properly raised.”[16] The Supreme Court recently set forth the analysis this Court must follow:

In resolving questions of qualified immunity at summary judgment, courts engage in a two-pronged inquiry. The first asks whether the facts, [t]aken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, . . . show the officer's conduct violated a [federal] right [.] .When a plaintiff alleges excessive force during an investigation or arrest, the federal right at issue is the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures. The inquiry into whether this right was violated requires a balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion.
The second prong of the qualified-immunity analysis asks whether the right in question was “clearly established” at the time of the violation. Governmental actors are shielded from liability for civil damages if their actions did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. [T]he salient question is whether the state of the law at the time of an incident provided “fair warning” to the defendants that their alleged [conduct] was unconstitutional.
Courts have discretion to decide the order in which to engage these two prongs. But under either prong, courts may not resolve genuine disputes of fact in favor of the party seeking summary judgment. This is not a rule specific to qualified immunity; it is simply an application of the more general rule that a “judge's function” at summary judgment is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Summary judgment is appropriate only if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In making that determination, a court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the opposing party.
Our qualified-immunity cases illustrate the importance of drawing inferences in favor of the nonmovant, even when a court decides only the clearly-established prong of the standard. In cases alleging unreasonable searches or seizures, we have instructed that courts should define the “clearly established” right at issue on the basis of the specific context of the case. Accordingly, courts must take care not to define a case's context in a manner that imports genuinely disputed factual propositions.[17]

         In this case, the plaintiff has not presented sufficient evidence to negate the application of qualified immunity as to any of the named defendants. Accordingly, Sheriff Melancon, Deputy Broussard and Deputy Smith are entitled to qualified immunity, and the claims against them in their individual capacities must be dismissed.

         D. Factual Findings

         The determination of the material facts at issue can, for the most part, be derived from the dashboard camera video recording made by the video camera in Deputy Broussard's vehicle. The United States Supreme Court has stated that, even at the summary judgment stage, the facts should be viewed in the light depicted by a videotape of the incident.[18] As noted by the Fifth Circuit, “we assign greater weight, even at the summary judgment stage, to the facts evident from video recordings taken at the scene.”[19] Nonetheless, the video must be viewed by the Court from the perspective of a reasonable officer.[20] Thus, this Court's analysis will focus to the maximum extent possible on the factual scenario depicted on the recording from Deputy Broussard's dashboard camera since that record depicts a significant part of the interaction between Deputy Broussard, Deputy Smith, Ms. Bankston, and Mr. Trahan. There is no audio and the actual altercation with Mr. Trahan is not depicted, nor does he ever even come into view, on the video. However, the actions taken and the statements made at the time of the shooting are consistently described in the testimony of the only three witnesses - Deputy Broussard, Deputy Smith, and Ms. Bankston. Although the plaintiff suggests that the video is inconsistent with the deposition testimony of the deputies and Ms. Bankston, there are no allegations or indications that the videotape was altered in any way and there is no material difference between the testimony and what can be seen on the video. Based on the competent evidence presented, the following facts are not in dispute.

         Deputy Broussard was going off shift and Deputy Smith was coming on shift when they received a radio dispatch call for a possible domestic disturbance and shots fired at an address in Acadia Parish, which had been phoned in by a neighbor. Both deputies proceeded to the address, which turned out to be the residence of Mr. Trahan and his girlfriend, Tammy Bankston. Deputy Broussard parked his unit in front of the house so that the unit's spotlight was directed to the open front door and he left his dashboard camera running. Deputy Broussard went to the left side of the open door, and Deputy Smith went to the right side. The contents inside the residence are visibly in disarray on the video. Although both deputies had a hand on their holstered sidearm, neither had his weapon actually drawn.

         Ms. Bankston came to the door and told the officers that everything was all right. As Ms. Bankston stepped outside and attempted to pull the door closed behind her, Deputy Smith pushed the door open with his weapon still not drawn. As he did so, Deputy Smith saw Mr. Trahan standing in the house with an empty holster on his hip and his arms crossed over his chest with his hands under his armpits. Deputy Smith asked Mr. Trahan to come outside, and he asked Mr. Trahan to show his hands. Mr. Trahan did not answer. As Deputy Broussard peered into the house from the opposite side of the door, he too could see Mr. Trahan standing with his arms crossed and his hands under his armpits. He also observed the empty holster. Deputy Broussard drew his weapon and instructed Mr. Trahan to come out of the house and to show his hands. Mr. Trahan did not come out of the house. He briefly showed the palms of his hands but did not move his arms away from his sides.

         Deputy Broussard holstered his weapon and, as he entered the house, he unholstered his taser. After Mr. Trahan briefly showed his palms but failed to raise his arms, Deputy Broussard threatened to tase Mr. Trahan if he did not show his hands. Mr. Trahan replied, “you're going to have to shoot me in the back, ” and began walking toward a sofa that was facing away from the door. As Mr. Trahan began to bend over the back of the sofa, Deputy Broussard deployed his taser. The taser did not have the desired effect of incapacitating Mr. Trahan. Mr. Trahan remained standing up but in a bent over position. Mr. Trahan then started coming up, holding a camouflage-patterned shotgun that he had picked up off the sofa. Deputy Broussard observed that the shotgun was being held in both of Mr. Trahan's hands, with the barrel pointing to the left. Deputy Broussard threw the taser to the floor and jumped on Mr. Trahan's back in an attempt to wrestle him to the ground. At this point, for the first time, both deputies were actually in the house and Ms. Bankston was looking in the door. The shotgun went off, shooting Deputy Smith in the leg, and Deputy Smith screamed. Deputy Broussard and Mr. Trahan fell to the ground. Mr. Trahan raised his right arm and began wrapping it around Deputy Broussard's head to put him in a headlock. Deputy Broussard unholstered his weapon and fired a couple of rounds, striking Mr. Trahan once in the chest. Mr. Trahan fell forward, with the barrel of the shotgun under his body. Mr. Trahan began attempting to get up, and Deputy Broussard saw the shotgun moving. Ms. Bankston, who was watching through the doorway, entered the house while Deputy Smith, although suffering from a shotgun blast to his leg, attempted to wrest the shotgun away from Mr. Trahan. At that point, Deputy Broussard fired more rounds, striking Mr. Trahan twice in the back. Deputy Smith pushed the shotgun out of the house. Deputy Broussard reholstered his weapon, rolled Mr. Trahan onto his left side, and used a cloth to stanch the bleeding. Because Mr. Trahan was still moving and Deputy Broussard still did not know where Mr. Trahan's pistol was, Deputy Broussard handcuffed Mr. Trahan. He then went to check on Deputy Smith and used his radio to call for assistance.

         The deputies consistently testified that Mr. Trahan failed to comply with their instructions to exit the house and to show his hands. Deputy Broussard twice attempted to de-escalate the situation by first holstering his weapon and using his taser and then using bodily force rather than a weapon in an attempt to stop Mr. Trahan after Mr. Trahan retrieved a shotgun. It was only after Mr. Trahan fired the shotgun and wounded Deputy Smith that Deputy Broussard shot Mr. Trahan.

         The plaintiff is correct that the dashcam video does not depict what occurred inside the house once the deputies entered and before the shots were fired. However, there was no evidence presented that rebuts the deputies' version of events. The plaintiff argues that the video shows “flashes from multiple gunshots that occur almost simultaneously before the wadding and pellets from the shotgun blast can be seen leaving the home.” (Rec. Doc. 69 at 7). Having viewed the video many times, the Court observed no such flashes.

         Ms. Bankston's testimony concerning what happened does not create any material factual disputes. Ms. Bankston confirmed that the shotgun was on the sofa before the deputies entered the house. Ms. Bankston can be seen on the video looking in the door when the deputies entered. She testified that Mr. Trahan had the shotgun in his hand before shots were fired and that the deputies told him to put the shotgun down. She confirmed that there was a struggle between Mr. Trahan and one of the deputies. Although she heard gunshots, she did not know which gun was shot first. Consequently, her testimony does not refute the version of events related by the deputies.

         The entire sequence of events from the time of the deputies' arrival until the shotgun was removed from the house occurred over seventy-five seconds as indicated in the following time line taken from the video:

4:45 Broussard arrives - the door is open.
4:51 Smith walks around to the right side of the carport where he has a view through the open door.
4:56 Bankston pulls the door to close it - but it does not completely close.
4:59 Smith taps the door open - his weapon is not drawn.
5:04 Broussard sticks his head in the left side of the door.
5:10 Broussard draws his weapon while he is still outside the house.
5:14 Broussard steps backwards.
5:17 Broussard holsters his weapon.
5:19 Broussard enters the door and pulls out ...

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