1983 case cannot be dismissed based on minimal injuries


Cameron Kemp appeals from a § 1983 action against Shreveport, Louisiana police officers Carlos Glass-Bradley, Daniel Albrecht, Ryan Holley, and Donald Belanger, Jr. Much of his ire is trained on two separate incidents.

2018 Incident

First, Kemp claims that in 2018, the four officer defendants showed up at his house to arrest him on a “fake fugitive warrant” stemming from a domestic abuse complaint two years prior. Kemp explains that they then lied about smelling marijuana inside and began raiding the home. Finding nothing illicit of Kemp’s, he says, the officers instead “planted 1 gram of marijuana” in the house and a full bag of marijuana in his neighbor’s yard. He was arrested for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. All of this, he says, was in retaliation for filing a complaint with the ACLU against the same four officers back in 2012.

The officers (and the evidence) tell a fuller tale. Arrest reports explain that at the time, the department was conducting a warrant round-up operation. Kemp had an outstanding 2016 warrant for a prior charge of domestic abuse battery. When the officers arrived at Kemp’s place, he closed the door in their faces and fled to the house’s rear. Agents outside circled the house, where they heard a window open but saw no one exit. Instead, just across from the opened window, they found laying in the neighbor’s yard a retail bag containing about a pound of marijuana. When Kemp eventually met the officers back at the door, they observed a strong order of marijuana coming from inside and saw a jar of marijuana sitting on Kemp’s living room floor. The officers seized both the jar and the bag, and then arrested Kemp.

As regards this incident, the district court eventually adopted the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation and granted summary judgment to the officers. The court found: that Kemp could not dispute evidence that his arrest warrant was properly issued; that seizure of the jar in the living room was permitted under the search-incident-to-arrest and plain view exceptions to the warrant requirement; that Kemp lacked standing to contest any search or seizure of items in his neighbor’s yard; and finally, that Kemp could not show that, save for his 2012 ACLU complaint, he would not have been arrested.

2019 Incident

Kemp’s tale continues with a second run-in with Belanger the next year. In early 2019, Kemp says, more than twenty officers amassed outside his home. An animal control officer then lured Kemp to the street, where, he insists, he was ambushed by the crowd. Out of fear for his life, Kemp explains, he surrendered peacefully without resistance, posing no threat to the officers. But all the same, Kemp says, Belanger cuffed him and then swept his legs, sending him crashing to the ground.

The officers remember it differently. In their telling, they had a narcotics search warrant for Kemp’s house, obtained after conducting two controlled drug buys there. Fearful of Kemp’s pit bulls, they employed an animal control officer to lure Kemp outside under the guise of an animal complaint. Once outside, Kemp became irate and belligerent, repeatedly demanding to see a warrant. He pulled away from Belanger and refused to comply with instructions to sit. To prevent escape and ensure safety, Belanger swept Kemp to the ground in the manner taught to him at the Shreveport Police Department.”

In Kemp’s telling, this event left him with myriad injuries, including bruised ribs and elbows, debilitating arm injuries, exacerbated breathing troubles, and back problems. Belanger instead insists that after he took Kemp to the hospital following the incident, Kemp was diagnosed only with rib pain and was prescribed ibuprofen. Scans showed no other injury.

The district court eventually granted Belanger summary judgment as to this 2019 incident too. On recommendation of the magistrate judge, the district court found that though Kemp did establish a genuine issue of material fact as whether Belanger used unreasonable force by leg sweeping a handcuffed suspect who may or may not have been resisting, his claim still fails because he could show only minimal injuries.

Kemp now appeals both grants of summary judgment. The 5th affirmed the 2018 decision but reversed the 2019 decision.


A. 2018 Decision

We start with the straightforward. Upon review of the parties’ briefs and the record, we find no reversible error in the district court’s determination that Kemp failed to provide evidence demonstrating a genuine dispute of material fact as to his allegations against Officers Glass-Bradley, Albrecht, Holley, or Belanger regarding his 2018 arrest. We therefore AFFIRM that order.

B. 2019 Decision

But the district court’s order granting Belanger summary judgment regarding Kemp’s 2019 arrest is a different story. Kemp alleges that Belanger violated his constitutional right to be free from excessive force. To show such a violation, Kemp must demonstrate (1) an injury (2) which resulted from the use of force that was clearly excessive to the need and (3) the excessiveness of which was objectively unreasonable. See Rockwell. Then, if he succeeds, Kemp must demonstrate that the law prohibiting Belanger’s behavior was clearly established at the time of his conduct. See Ramirez. We judge the reasonableness of the force employed from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene, rather than with the the 20/20 vision of hindsight.

In Kemp’s sworn telling, he surrendered peacefully, and then was swept to the ground while handcuffed and nonresisting. Belanger instead insists that Kemp was irate, belligerent, and evasive, and that Belanger took him to the ground only after he didn’t comply with several verbal commands. In these different tales, the district court found a dispute of material fact over whether Kemp was resisting and thus over whether Belanger’s use of force— sweeping to the ground a handcuffed, potentially nonresisting suspect—was reasonable.

The district court went onto say, however, that the factual dispute didn’t matter since Kemp failed to show his injuries were more than minimal.

But that conclusion was error. As we’ve explained, though a de minimis injury is not cognizable, the extent of injury necessary to satisfy the injury requirement is directly related to the amount of force that is constitutionally permissible under the circumstances. See Byrd. (Any force found to be objectively unreasonable necessarily exceeds the de minimis threshold, and, conversely, objectively reasonable force will result in de minimis injuries only.) Thus, as long as a plaintiff has suffered some injury, even relatively insignificant injuries will prove cognizable when resulting from an officer’s unreasonably excessive force.

Here, even though Kemp did not prove the extensive injuries he claimed, he still proves some injury. He was diagnosed with rib pain and bony tenderness, for which the doctor prescribed ibuprofen. Though this is unquestionably no great injury, it is nonetheless actionable if resulting from unreasonable force. Should Belanger’s force be excessive given the circumstances—a question we do not answer now—then Kemp’s injuries, however mild, can sustain his claim. To hold otherwise was error.

We therefore AFFIRM the grant of summary judgment to Glass- Bradley, Albrecht, Holley, and Belanger regarding Kemp’s 2018 arrest. But we REVERSE the grant of summary judgment to Belanger with respect to Kemp’s 2019 arrest, and REMAND this matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.