“Grossly Disproportionate Force” Precludes Qualified Immunity

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Cantu v. City of Dothan, 2020 WL 5270645 (11th Cir 2020)

Robert Earl Lawrence found a dog wandering in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Lawrence picked up the dog and took it to the county animal shelter. The shelter attendant asked Lawrence to complete a form and provide identification. He declined, citing his desire for privacy. When the attendant told him the shelter would not accept the dog without completion of the form, Lawrence said he would just leave the dog at the gate.

Sergeant Woodruff overheard Lawrence and followed him out to the parking lot, noting his license plate. She asked for his driver license once he was seated in the car. Lawrence declined to provide a driver license and they argued for several minutes. Lawrence’s girlfriend recorded the encounter. After further argument, Lawrence gave Sergeant Woodruff his “Affidavit of Identity” that declared him to be “Flesh and blood of living Man.”

Sergeant Woodruff called for backup. She asked Lawrence, “Do you know how foolish you sound?” Sergeant Woodruff made fun of Lawrence’s teeth, saying, “You’re so smart, you got half your teeth in your mouth.” The court, having heard the recording of the encounter, observed that the event was one in which “you can see the bad luck tumbling, as if the devil himself had shaved the dice.” Lawrence got out of the car. Sergeant Woodruff told the dispatcher Lawrence was “off his meds,” further agitating Lawrence.

Officer Rhodes arrived to assist. After speaking with Sergeant Woodruff, Officer Rhodes told Lawrence to turn around, intending to handcuff him. Lawrence struggled and Sergeant Woodruff joined in the tussle. Officer Rhodes briefly held Lawrence against the car, but he escaped and ran around the car. Officer Rhodes fired a TASER® device at Lawrence with no effect, then grabbed Lawrence and again pushed him against the car. Officer Rhodes handed the TASER device to Sergeant Woodruff who twice fired it in drive-stun mode into Lawrence’s stomach. He recoiled, but was not incapacitated. Lawrence grabbed for the TASER, perhaps to push it away or perhaps to control it and use it against the officers. The video recording does not clearly indicate one way or the other.

The court concluded Sergeant Woodruff’s force “lies so obviously at the very core of what the Fourth Amendment prohibits that the unlawfulness of the conduct was readily apparent.”

A third officer grabbed for the device to pull it away. Sergeant Woodruff drew her firearm and shot Lawrence three times. She explained that she shot him because she feared he might take control of the TASER and use it against Officer Rhodes, leaving only two officers to deal with him. The court noted Sergeant Woodruff was unable to explain why she believed the TASER device would incapacitate Officer Rhodes, when the drive-stuns to Lawrence did not incapacitate him. She was also unable to explain why she could not have waited to shoot until seeing whether Lawrence would successfully control the TASER or why there was no time for a warning or to step back.

The court observed, “one thing that is indisputable is that Sergeant Woodruff acted suddenly and without warning. So much so that both the other officers were startled by the shot and didn’t know where it came from. Officer Skipper testified that she was so surprised to hear the gunshot that she thought that she had been shot and ‘went blank.’ Officer Rhodes had a similar reaction. He, too, was unaware that Sergeant Woodruff had drawn her weapon and was going to shoot Lawrence.”

The court held Sergeant Woodruff was not entitled to qualified immunity. A reasonable jury could find her force was unreasonable. If the case proceeds to trial, the jury will be able to consider the parking lot argument, including Sergeant Woodruff’s taunts, the fact that the initial crime was—at worst—driving without a license, and that there was no warning before shooting. The court concluded Sergeant Woodruff’s force “lies so obviously at the very core of what the Fourth Amendment prohibits that the unlawfulness of the conduct was readily apparent … Simply put, the grossly disproportionate force used in this case was clearly established as a constitutional violation because no reasonable officer could have believed that [Woodruff’s] actions were legal.”

Most officers with any tenure can think back to a situation with someone who really tried to push their buttons. Maybe it was even someone like Lawrence, who identified himself with an “Affidavit of Identity” that declared him to be “Flesh and blood of living Man.” Perhaps reflecting on those encounters, and the encounter that led to Lawrence’s death, is helpful if it reminds officers to slow down, step back and consider alternatives.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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