An Alabama police officer must face a civil rights suit filed by the estate of a man she shot and killed while he was trying to surrender a stray dog at the animal shelter, after the Eleventh Circuit said she isn’t immune Thursday.
Dothan, Ala., Sergeant Adrianne Woodruff should have known that using deadly force on Robert Lawrence wasn’t warranted under the circumstances, Judge Ed Carnes said.
Lawrence and his family found the dog in the Dothan Walmart on December 30, 2014, and took it to the county shelter. Because Lawrence wasn’t a county resident, the receptionist wouldn’t take the dog unless he showed her some identification.
Lawrence argued with the receptionist, saying he didn’t have to show her anything and suggesting he would just leave the dog at the end of the street, which would have been a misdemeanor.
Woodruff, who was on duty at the shelter for just such instances, followed Lawrence out of the building to record his license plate number in case he did abandon the dog. Woodruff and Lawrence argued on the way to the car, she asked for his driver’s license, he refused to give it to her, and she called for backup.
Two other officers arrived, and the three tried to arrest Lawrence for driving without a license, another misdemeanor, but he pulled away and started running around his car spewing legal doctrine and saying he knew his rights. Eventually the officers caught Lawrence and pinned him up against his car, with his family watching and screaming from within.
Lawrence refused to be handcuffed and kept trying to pull away from the officers. Woodruff used a taser on Lawrence while an officer who was bigger than him had him pinned to the car.
When the first two taser blasts didn’t work, Woodruff adjusted its setting and went at Lawrence again. At that point, she said Lawrence tried to take the taser away from her, so she stepped back, pulled out her gun, and shot him in the stomach without warning—Lawrence’s estate contests this version of the events.
Lawrence died from his wound, and his estate sued for a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The district court granted Woodruff summary judgment, saying she was immune from the suit.
Although Lawrence was resisting being handcuffed, he never threw any punches, and hadn’t committed a violent crime, the court said. Woodruff therefore violated his right to be free from the use of excessive force, it said.
A reasonable officer in Woodruff’s position, making an arrest for a relatively insignificant misdemeanor, should have known not to use deadly force, the court said.
The whole incident was filmed, either by Lawrence’s girlfriend on her phone, or by the dashboard camera in the police cruiser, the court said. It should therefore be up to a jury to decide whose version of the incident to believe, it said.
Judges Robin S. Rosenbaum and C. Roger Vinson, sitting by designation, joined the opinion.
Hillary L. Kody, of Williamsburg, Va., represented Lawrence’s estate.
The case is Cantu v. City of Dothan, 2020 BL 336962, 11th Cir., No. 18-15071, 9/3/20.