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A jury must decide whether a tragic shooting by a Dothan, Alabama, police officer was unconstitutional

A man named Robert Lawrence was shot by a police officer in front of his wife and children after an incident that began when took a stray dog to the animal shelter in Dothan, Alabama. Lawrence and his family found a stray dog in a Walmart parking lot and decided to take the dog to the shelter. When he arrived there with the dog, he was asked to show some identification and to fill out some paperwork before leaving the dog. He felt that he should not have to do that and out of frustration he told the official he would leave and just let the dog out along the road leading to the shelter.

When people who are at the shelter threaten to abandon an animal, their policy is to have a police officer follow them to their vehicle to write down their tag number. That happened when Lawrence left the shelter. The police officer asked for his driver’s license when he arrive at his car, and he told her he did not have to show her one.   The officer called for a backup officer and detained Lawrence at his car where they argued while waiting for the backup.

When backup arrived, more arguing took place.  The other officers told Lawrence to stop talking or he was going to jail. He did not stop talking, and the backup officer, with the assistance of two other officers, attempted to arrest and handcuff him. Lawrence would not submit and resisted though not aggressively. He struggled while the officers tried to put his hands behind his back. He freed himself from an officer’s grip and ran around his car trying to get away, but the officers caught up to him.

By then one of the officers had taken out her taser and began using it on him without successfully incapacitating him. As he was trying to get free from the three officers, he put his hand either on the officer’s taser or the hand that was holding the taser. In response, the officer pulled out her service revolver and without warning shot Lawrence while he was being held. He died from the gunshot wound. A dash cam video on the police car recorded most of what happened but not everything that happened during the incident.

The executor of Lawrence’s estate filed a 1983 lawsuit alleging excessive forced in violation of the Fourth Amendment and alleged state claims for assault and battery. The trial judge dismissed the case against the officer that shot Lawrence finding the officer had qualified immunity protection. The judge concluded there was no constitutional or state law violation, and even if there was a violation, it was not clearly established.

The court of appeals reversed because it found there was a genuine issue of material fact as to what happened. The issue here was whether the officer’s use of deadly force against Lawrence was reasonable or unreasonable. If unreasonable, it was a Fourth Amendment violation for excessive force. If the officer had probable cause to believe Lawrence posed a threat of serious physical harm or death to one or more of the officers when she shot him, then the shooting did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The court found that viewing the video of the dash camera video in a light most favorable to Lawrence, a jury could reasonably find that at the time the officer shot Lawrence, he did not pose a real threat to the officers and therefore a jury could find that deadly force was unreasonable, excessive, and therefore unconstitutional. The court of appeals sent the case back for a jury to decide.


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