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Cantu v. City of Dothan

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Southern Division

November 8, 2018

CHRISTOPHER CANTU, as the Administrator of the Estate of Robert Earl Lawrence, Plaintiff,
CITY OF DOTHAN, ALABAMA, et al., Defendants.



         This cause comes before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment: Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 43) and Defendants' City of Dothan, Alabama, Benton, Summerlin, and Woodruff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 63). The Magistrate Judge, after considering these motions, submitted a Report and Recommendation (Doc. 73) recommending Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 43) be denied; and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on behalf of the City of Dothan, Alabama; Greg Benton, and Chris Summerlin (Doc. 63) be granted and final summary judgment be entered in these Defendants' favor, and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment as to Adrienne Woodruff (Doc. 63) be denied. Based on an independent review of the record and for the reasons discussed below, the Report and Recommendation will be ADOPTED IN PART and REJECTED IN PART. It will be ADOPTED as to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation that summary judgment is due to be granted as to Defendants Greg Benton, Chris Summerlin, and the City of Dothan. However, the Court will reject the Magistrate Judge's recommendation on summary judgment to deny Woodruff qualified immunity.


         The court has subject-matter jurisdiction over this action under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue.


         A district court judge “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 18 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The court reviews the Recommendation using the same summary judgment standard applied by the Magistrate Judge. (See Doc. # 209, at 4-6.) Summary judgment is appropriate when the “movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).


         Plaintiff Christopher Cantu is the personal representative of the Estate of Robert Earl Lawrence who was fatally shot by Defendant Adrianne Woodruff, a Dothan Police Department sergeant. The material facts are largely undisputed. The shooting and the events leading up to it are captured on multiple video and audio recordings, including a video from inside the office of the Dothan County Animal Shelter, a cell-phone video recorded by Lawrence's girlfriend and himself, and the dash-mounted camera in Officer Alan Rhodes' patrol car. There are also audio recordings of three telephone calls from the animal shelter to Dothan Police dispatch.

         On December 30, 2014, Lawrence entered the Dothan County Animal Shelter reception area with a dog he wanted to surrender. Woodruff was the sergeant on duty assigned to supervise the animal shelter. Receptionist Patricia Holley and Chief Animal Services Officer Renee Skipper were also working at the shelter that day. Lawrence told Holley he was from Geneva County, and she advised that the shelter only accepted animals from Houston County. Lawrence stated that he found the dog at a Wal-Mart in Dothan, Alabama. Woodruff walked in from the adjoining office after she heard Lawrence getting upset about being asked for identification. Lawrence refused to produce identification, purporting to cite federal law and claiming invasion of privacy. Woodruff agreed to accept the dog without Lawrence producing identification if he would sign a routine intake form. Lawrence refused to sign the form and threatened to abandon the dog at the end of the road. Woodruff told him that abandoning the animal would be a crime. Lawrence complained that his rights were being violated and picked the dog up to leave. Woodruff asked him for identification, which Lawrence again refused, stating it was a violation of his rights.

         Skipper testified that when people threaten to abandon a dog outside the shelter, the procedure is to write down the tag number of the person's vehicle in the event the dog is later found. As Lawrence was leaving the shelter with the dog, Woodruff followed him to write down the tag number of Lawrence's vehicle. As Woodruff followed Lawrence, she observed an empty gun holster on his hip. She asked Lawrence about the gun, and he told her that it was in his car. Woodruff asked her assistant to call for back-up.

         Lawrence walked toward his car and called out to his girlfriend in the car: “Get the video. This is going to be a good one.” Lawrence sat in the driver's seat of the car which was still running. Woodruff went to the rear of the vehicle to copy the tag number, but Lawrence got out of his car and attempted to block her view of the tag; she ultimately got the tag number. Woodruff also testified that she could not communicate the tag number initially to dispatch because she could not get through on the telephone. Woodruff called police dispatch to request her back-up. Lawrence told Woodruff he was leaving, but she told Lawrence he could not leave without showing her a driver's license. Lawrence argued with Woodruff, stating that he did not have a drivers license or need one because she had not seen him driving and further demanded that Woodruff tell him the statutory definition of “driving.” Lawrence produced a piece of paper titled an “AFFIDAVIT OF IDENTITY.” The document stated that it was “duly affirmed upon oath and full commercial liability” and included Lawrence's name, his “current post” and “Date of origin.” The Affidavit purported to be proof of his description, picture, right thumb print, and signature. Based on her training, Woodruff believed Lawrence to be a “Sovereign Citizen.”

         Lawrence demanded that Woodruff return his identification paper. Woodruff said she would first call police dispatch to request a warrant check for Lawrence. Lawrence told Woodruff that she had “no right or authority” and repeatedly demanded that Woodruff return his paper. Skipper brought Woodruff a portable telephone, and Woodruff called to verify that there were no warrants for Lawrence. After confirming that Lawrence had no outstanding warrants, Woodruff stayed on the call with dispatch, and the exchange between Lawrence and Woodruff was recorded. After Woodruff ran the tag for his vehicle, the tag came back registered to a silver Lexus, which was the color and model of the car that Lawrence was in.

         The dashboard camera in Rhodes's patrol car shows that he arrived at shelter and parked his patrol car behind Lawrence's car at 12:41:13 PM. The video shows Woodruff on a telephone and holding papers behind and to the driver's side of the silver Lexus, and Lawrence standing beside the open driver's door of the car while lighting a cigarette and holding a cell phone to record the incident. At 12:41:20 PM, the video shows Woodruff hang up the phone and Lawrence begin to approach Rhodes's patrol car, holding a cell phone in his right hand recording the incident. At 12:41:24 PM, Rhodes comes into the left frame of the video, and as he points to the silver Lexus he can be heard telling Lawrence, “Hey, don't even start. Stand over there with the car, and I'll be with you in a second.” Lawrence backs up and stands at the bumper of the silver Lexus at 12:41:33 PM. Woodruff begins to explain the events to Rhodes. Less than ten seconds after backing up to the silver Lexus, Lawrence again begins to walk toward Woodruff and Rhodes. Rhodes points at Lawrence and says, “Did I tell you to stand over there? You need to stand by the car where I tell you to or you're going to jail now!” Lawrence can be heard in the background arguing with Rhodes saying “Yes sir, I'm utilizing my First Amendment right for free speech.” Rhodes responded, “You can stand by the car where I tell you to or you can go to jail now.” Lawrence backed up but continued to argue with Rhodes about “utilizing his rights, ” and Rhodes responded that “You can utilize it where I tell you to stand.” Lawrence responds “Ok, where's that … can you tell me where you … I'm not arguing with you sir, I'm trying to figure out the back side of this.” Lawrence and Rhodes continued to speak over each other, and at 12:41:53 PM in the video, Rhodes approaches Lawrence as he says, “Do you want to argue with me more? Turn around. Turn around.”

         Rhodes and Woodruff both pinned Lawrence against the Silver Lexus as he repeated “Oh, no no no no … Don't touch me!” and resisted their efforts. Lawrence waved the cellphone in his right hand away from the officers as he yelled for his girlfriend to “get this … get this … look at this … look at this” and continued to resist arrest as he shouted “I'm a peaceful man … stop! Get off me, get off me.” Rhodes asks Lawrence, “Are you going to turn around for me?” and Lawrence yells back, “No, I'm not!” The three continued to struggle, and Lawrence continued to yell and demand that the officers stop as he protested that his arrest was an “unlawful detainer.” After physically resisting arrest for over a minute, Lawrence breaks away from the officers' grasp at 12:43:12 PM on the video and begins to run around the car fleeing from the officers. Rhodes deploys his Taser at Lawrence at 12:43:19 PM on the video, but Lawrence, who was wearing a thick jacket, shows no signs that the Taser had any effect on him. Rhodes continued to attempt to physically restrain Lawrence, and Lawrence continued to physically resist while yelling, “Stop!” repeatedly. Neither the video nor audio indicate that Lawrence ever stopped actively resisting arrest, and he continued to wrestle with the officers. At 12:44:02 PM, the video shows Woodruff attempting to use the Taser in drive stun mode as Rhodes repeatedly tells Lawrence to “Turn around!” Four seconds later, Lawrence can be heard yelling, “Don't do it! Stop!” as he reaches and grabs the Taser. Plaintiff admits that “Woodruff held the Taser with her finger on the trigger” and that “Lawrence grabbed Woodruff's Taser.” (Doc. 43 at ¶¶ 26-27).[1] The Taser can be heard briefly firing, and then Skipper reached in and pulled Lawrence's arm away from the scrum while both he and Woodruff were holding the Taser. One second later, Woodruff can be seen removing her pistol from the holster on her belt and discharging it by Lawrence's side. Woodruff shot Lawrence in the abdomen with her service weapon while Lawrence continued to hold the Taser and struggle against Skipper and Rhodes. Lawrence did not release his grasp on the Taser until after Woodruff discharged her gun. Woodruff did not verbally warn Lawrence that she was going to shoot him. Lawrence died as a result of the gunshot wound.

         At all material times, Defendant City of Dothan was the employer of Defendants Benton, Summerlin, and Woodruff in the City of Dothan Police Department. (Docs. 63-1; 63-5; 63-16).

         In December 2016, Plaintiff filed suit against Defendants. (Doc. 1). In a two-count amended complaint, Plaintiff sued the City of Dothan, Greg Benton, Chris Summerlin, and Adrienne Woodruff for alleged violation of Lawrence's Fourth Amendment rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Doc. 28). In Count II, Plaintiff alleged Alabama state law claims of assault and battery against the City, Summerlin, and Woodruff. Id. Plaintiff has moved for partial summary judgment on the excessive force claims against Woodruff, arguing that no reasonable jury could find Woodruff's decision to use deadly force to be a reasonable one and that Woodruff had fair warning that her use of deadly force was unconstitutional. (Doc. 43). Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment against Plaintiff on the basis that there was no constitutional violation against Lawrence, and even if there was, Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity for their actions. (Doc. 63). On the state law claims of assault and battery/excessive force in Count II, Defendants assert that officers may lawfully use the degree of force reasonably necessary to defend themselves, and in any event, Woodruff would be entitled to peace officer immunity under Alabama law. Id.


         A. Defendants City of Dothan, Greg Benton, and Chris Summerlin

         Plaintiff did “not oppose the dismissal of Benton, Summerlin, and the City of Dothan” in his briefs to this Court (Doc. 70 at 11) and did not object to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation to grant summary judgment in favor of those parties. (Doc. 78). Accordingly, the recommendation is adopted in part to the extent that the Magistrate Judge recommended that “Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. 63) is due to be granted in part as to Defendants Greg Benton, Chris Summerlin, and the City of Dothan.” (Doc. 73 at 11).

         B. Defendant Woodruff

         1. Count I - Excessive Force

         Plaintiff's first claim is that “Woodruff, acting under color of law within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, used deadly force on Lawrence, thereby depriving Lawrence of his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Specifically, she violated Lawrence's right to be free from excessive force.” (Doc. 28 at ¶ 65).

         “[T]he question we ask is whether, under [the plaintiff's] version of the facts, [the officer] behaved reasonably in the light of the circumstances before him.” Galvez v. Bruce, 552 F.3d 1238, 1243 (11th Cir. 2008)(citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The excessive-force “area is one in which the result depends very much on the facts of each case.” Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 201, 125 S.Ct. 596, 600, 160 L.Ed.2d 583 (2004). Excessive-force claims are fact-specific; whether the force an officer uses is reasonable “requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 1872, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989).

“The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments- in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving-about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 396-97, 109 S.Ct. 1865. We make this inquiry without regard to the officer's underlying intent or motivation. Id. at 397, 109 S.Ct. 1865.

Wate v. Kubler, 839 F.3d 1012, 1019-20 (11th Cir. 2016).

Courts must examine “the fact pattern from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene with knowledge of the attendant circumstances and facts, and balance the risk of bodily [or psychological] harm to the suspect against the gravity of the threat the officer sought to eliminate.” McCullough v. Antolini, 559 F.3d 1201, 1206 (11th Cir. 2009) (citing Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 383, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 1778, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007)).

Stephens v. DeGiovanni, 852 F.3d 1298, 1318 (11th Cir. 2017). The Eleventh Circuit has further held that

“The Fourth Amendment's freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures encompasses the plain right to be free from the use of excessive force in the course of an arrest.” Lee, 284 F.3d at 1197 (emphasis added). The Graham objective-reasonableness standard governs judicial determination of claims of official use of excessive force. “[T]o determine whether the amount of force used by a police officer was proper, a court must ask whether a reasonable officer would believe that this level of force is necessary in the situation at hand.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). In deciding whether an officer is entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity, the question of whether the force used by the officer in the course of an arrest is excessive is a “‘pure question of law, '” decided by the court. Myers v. Bowman, 713 F.3d 1319, 1328 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Scott, 550 U.S. at 381 n.8, 127 S.Ct. at 1776 n.8).
To determine “whether the force used to effect a particular seizure is ‘reasonable,' ” the Graham Court noted three nonexclusive factors for evaluating an officer's necessity for using force against an arrestee's Fourth Amendment rights: (1) “the severity of the crime at issue, ” (2) “whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, ” and (3) “whether [the suspect] is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.”

Stephens, 852 F.3d at 1321 (emphasis in original).

         a. Probable Cause

         Plaintiff initially conceded in his motion for summary judgment that “[Lawrence] at most had committed a minor crime and was resisting an arrest he believed was unlawful.” (Doc. 43 at 23). Plaintiff confirmed this position in his reply brief in support of his motion: “Defendant spends most of her brief arguing that Woodruff and Rhodes were justified in detaining and arresting Lawrence and justified in using the Taser on Lawrence, matters not disputed by plaintiff for the purposes of his motion.” (Doc. 52 at 1). Woodruff argues that her “request to see Lawrence's driver's license was lawful because he had just threatened to commit a crime, then sat behind the wheel of a car to drive away. Furthermore, probable cause existed to support his arrest for obstructing government operations, refusing a lawful order to present a driver's license, refusing a lawful order to back away, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, harassment of a police officer, menacing, attempted assault of a police officer with a dangerous instrument and taking a police officer's weapon.” (Doc. 64 at 28). However, Plaintiff changed course in responding to Defendants' motion for summary judgment, newly arguing that “Woodruff's admonishment to Lawrence not to dump the dog and writing down his tag should have been the limit of her assertion of authority.” (Doc. 70 at 36).

         Plaintiff appears to argue that Woodruff lacked reasonable suspicion to detain Lawrence after he exited the shelter. Plaintiff does not dispute that Lawrence threatened “to abandon the dog down the road” (Doc. 70 at 36) or that doing so would have been a criminal offense. See § 13A-11-14(a)(2), Ala. Code 1975 (“A person commits the crime of cruelty to animals if, except at otherwise authorized by law, he or she recklessly or with criminal negligence … subjects any animal in his or her custody to cruel neglect....”). Moreover, Plaintiff acknowledges that under Alabama law, Woodruff, as a law enforcement officer, was authorized to “stop any person abroad in a public place whom [s]he reasonably suspects is committing, has committed or is about to commit a felony or other public offense and may demand of him his name, address and an explanation of his actions.” § 15-5-30. Plaintiff argues, however, that “[a] threat to commit a crime in the future is far from being caught “about to commit” a crime.” (Doc. 70 at 36).

         This Court must view “the fact pattern from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene with knowledge of the attendant circumstances and facts….” McCullough v. Antolini, 559 F.3d 1201, 1206 (11th Cir. 2009). In this case, Lawrence attempted to leave the dog with the shelter but refused to cooperate with the most basic of protocols for doing so and left with the dog while threatening to abandon the dog at the end of the road. In the cellphone video recorded by Lawrence's girlfriend, his girlfriend can be heard saying, “Just take the damned dog back with us.” Lawrence can be seen and heard replying to her “Well, that's what I said; I'll just take him down the damn road and drop him off.” The question is not, as Plaintiff suggests, whether “persons regularly make such statements” or whether “no one has ever been found to have dumped a dog after leaving the shelter, ” (Doc. 70 at 36) or even whether “Lawrence's threat to dump the dog at some point in the future was … a basis to arrest him, ” (Doc. 73 at 14), but whether a reasonable officer having witnessed Lawrence's demeanor, behavior, and threats had probable cause to detain Lawrence and at the minimum write down the tag number on his car, which she did. It would be far less reasonable for an officer to suspect that Lawrence would make a return trip to the same shelter from another county at some distant point in the future for the sole purpose of abandoning an animal to avoid producing identification. There is no evidence before the Court to suggest that Woodruff or Rhodes initiated the arrest of Lawrence due to his threat to abandon the dog.

         Moreover, in the cellphone video recorded by Lawrence's girlfriend, Lawrence exited the silver Lexus and said to Woodruff, “That's private property. You have no right to copy down…” and then stood between her and the rear of the vehicle in an attempt to block her view of the license plate on the car. On that same video, Lawrence argued with Woodruff, repeatedly asserting that she was interfering with his “right to travel, ” that he did not need a driver's license, and that she had not seen him driving. However, he was clearly in the driver's seat of the silver Lexus with the key in the ignition demanding return of his identification paperwork so he could “leave.” The situation was not simply, as Plaintiff has suggested, that once Woodruff had written down the license plate number from the silver Lexus that probable cause ceased to exist. On the contrary, the video evidence is incontrovertible that Lawrence was the only person seen in the driver's seat of the silver Lexus, the key was in the ignition, three small children were seated in the back of the car, Lawrence was increasingly agitated and argumentative toward Woodruff, and he was clearly stating that he intended to “leave” and “travel” and refused to show her a driver's license.

         Plaintiff argues that Woodruff's demand for Lawrence to produce his driver's license “was beyond her authority” (Doc. 70 at 36) and cites United States v. Brown, 731 F.2d 1491, 1494 (11th Cir.), on reh'g, 743 F.2d 1505 (11th Cir. 1984), for the proposition ‚Äúthat persons can lawfully refuse to provide a driver's license in this ...

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