Alabama Media Group, Birmingham
A federal district judge has ruled a Dothan animal services officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment rights of a man she fatally shot after a struggle stemming from a driver’s license and a stray dog.
U.S. District Judge Emily Marks ruled officer Adrianne Woodruff did not violate Lawrence’s Fourth Amendment rights when she fatally shot Robert Earl Lawrence after he allegedly grabbed her taser during a struggle. The ruling 41-page ruling filed Thursday came from a December 2016 lawsuit family members representing Lawrence’s estate filed, which alleged the officer violated his rights.
“Even construing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the video evidence inescapably demonstrates that Woodruff had probable cause to believe that Lawrence, in possession of the Taser, posed a serious threat of physical harm to herself,” Marks said in an order filed in federal courts Thursday.
She said Lawrence was “visibly and vocally resistant” and called the facts of the case “tragic and disturbing.”
“Although the facts of this case are tragic and disturbing, they are not so egregious as to present a violation of constitutional law in the absence of precedent. His refusal to abide by the most basic of lawful commands from Woodward and Rhodes needlessly escalated the encounter from detention to arrest to a struggle that lasted longer than two minutes culminating in Lawrence having the very weapon law enforcement had ineffectually used in the effort to subdue him and take him into custody without resort to deadly force.”
The incident started with a stray dog and an argument about the constitutionality of drivers’ licenses.
On December 30, 2014, Lawrence tried to surrender a stray dog found at a local Walmart to the Dothan Animal Shelter. Employees asked him to provide his driver’s license, which he refused to do, claiming they didn’t have the right to require his driver’s license to drop off the dog.
Police have said Lawrence considered himself “a sovereign citizen.” In the months leading up to his death, Lawrence had begun to read about sovereign citizens, an anti-government movement that often includes, among other things, complicated arguments against the constitutionality of driver’s licenses, family members told AL.com.
He then said he would drop the dog elsewhere and left. Woodruff followed and would not let him leave unless he showed his license. Dothan police Officer Chris Summerlin arrived after Woodruff called for backup and soon got involved in a physical altercation with Lawrence.
In a closeup video, Lawrence can be seen grabbing the Taser as it is being used like a cattle prod to shock him. He was being held from behind by another officer at the time of the shooting. A third officer was pulling on his arm.
Then, without warning, Woodruff shot Lawrence in the abdomen, killing him.
Representatives of Lawrence argue in the lawsuit that he was not a threat of serious physical harm to the officers at the time he was shot. Marks disagreed.
“How the Taser could be so seriously painful to Lawrence that he would risk unlawfully taking the weapon away from a law enforcement officer, yet that same Taser ‘no be a threat’ to the officers with whom he was wrestling is simply untenable,” Marks said in the order.
In 2015, Dothan Police Department cleared their officer, Adrianne Woodruff, stating in reports that Lawrence had taken control of her Taser and was an armed threat.
The incident was captured by video from inside the office at the animal shelter, a cellphone video taken by Lawrence’s girlfriend and himself, and the dash-mounted camera in Officer Alan Rhodes’ patrol car.
In August, AL.com obtained the dash cam video of the incident. The video shows graphic images of the incident.
“We were disappointed in the decision and will be filing an appeal,” Hank Sherrod, who represents Lawrence’s family in the lawsuit, told AL.com during a phone call Friday night.
Read the full text of judge’s ruling below:
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