DOTHAN, Ala. (CN) – An Alabama man was shot to death by a police officer after refusing to show his driver’s license while dropping off a stray dog at the local animal shelter, his estate claims in a federal lawsuit.
The estate of Robert Earl Lawrence sued the city of Dothan, Ala., in Middle Alabama federal court on Thursday, asserting claims of excessive force, assault and battery. The complaint also names as defendants two police officers, Chris Summerlin and Adrian Woodruff, and former Dothan Police Chief Greg Benton.
According to the Dec. 29 complaint, Lawrence went to the Dothan Animal Shelter in December 2014 to drop off a stray dog. Employees at the shelter allegedly demanded he provide them with a driver’s license as a form of identification.
Lawrence refused the demand “based on his personal convictions and beliefs,” though he did give the shelter his name, the complaint states. A shelter employee then contacted the police.
Summerlin, the first officer to arrive on the scene, allegedly repeated the demand that Lawrence show his driver’s license, and Lawrence again declined, the complaint states.
According to the lawsuit, the officer then “refused to permit Lawrence to leave without providing identification (in the form of a driver's license) and took Lawrence to the ground.” (Parentheses in original.)
The dispute over the driver’s license escalated as the officer allegedly attempted to place Lawrence under arrest.
After being allowed to get up, Lawrence “put his hands up and backed away from Summerlin in order to avoid being arrested,” at which point the officer used a stun gun on him, the complaint states.
Woodruff then arrived on the scene and drew her weapon, despite “the lack of any threat of death or serious bodily harm to any officer,” according to Lawrence’s estate administrator, Christopher Cantu.
Woodruff then allegedly shot Lawrence in the abdomen, killing him. The estate says his detention and arrest were both unlawful.
“The detention and arrest of Lawrence was not based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause,” the complaint states. “He was not subject to any legal duty to provide identification.”
Lawrence’s estate also claims the officers’ actions were the product of poor training.
“Officers were not trained regarding the limited circumstances in which it is appropriate to arrest persons for disorderly conduct and other charges that are subject to abuse by officers,” the lawsuit states.
According to the complaint, Dothan has a “long history of tolerance for misconduct by its officers.”
“This very case presents a prime example, as even the obvious use of excessive force by Woodruff was not a basis for discipline, and the city's policymakers did not criticize Summerlin's arrest of Lawrence either,” the lawsuit states.
The complaint specifically alleges that Lawrence was deprived of his civil rights in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. It also includes a claim of assault and battery under state law.
The city attorney for Dothan did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Lawrence’s estate seeks an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages, and is represented by Hank Sherrod III in Florence, Ala., and William Morris of Morris Cary in Dothan.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.