Cantu v. City of Dothan, Alabama et al (JOINT ASSIGN)(MAG2)
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER adopting in part and rejecting in part the 73 REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE ; ORDERING that plf's 43 motion for partial summary judgment be and is DENIED; further ORDERING that defs' C ity of Dothan, AL, Benton, and Summerlin's 63 motion for summary judgment be and is GRANTED; further ORDERING that def Woodruff's 77 objection is SUSTAINED and that her 63 motion for summary judgment be and is GRANTED. Signed by Honorable Judge Emily C. Marks on 11/8/18. (djy, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CHRISTOPHER CANTU, as the
Administrator of the Estate of
Robert Earl Lawrence,
CITY OF DOTHAN, ALABAMA, )
Case No. 1:16-cv-1003-ECM-DAB
MEMORDANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
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.
JURISDICTION AND VENUE
The court has subject-matter jurisdiction over this action under 28 U.S.C. §
1331. The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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.
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
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
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 twocount amended complaint, Plaintiff sued the City of Dothan, Greg Benton, Chris
Summerlin, and Adrienne Woodruff for alleged violation of Lawrence’s Fourth
Plaintiff further alleges that during this altercation in which Rhodes and Woodruff were trying to
subdue Lawrence, “Officer Skipper grabbed Lawrence’s arm and pulled it toward her (with
Woodruff still holding the Taser and Lawrence holding it as well but not by the grip).” Id. at ¶ 28.
However, after thoroughly and repeatedly viewing all available video of the incident that has been
submitted as exhibits in support of the parties’ respective motions, this Court finds that there is
insufficient clarity in any view to determine which part of the Taser Lawrence was grasping.
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 factspecific; 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
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 “that persons can lawfully refuse to provide a driver’s license in this
situation.” (Doc. 70 at 37-38). However, the relevant holding in Brown was that a
Georgia statute prohibited
only actual lies in order to avoid an unconstitutional construction. The
defendants' refusal to furnish identification—which they were entitled
to do if indeed this was a Terry stop, as the government must contend—
may have created suspicion that they had actually used false names, but
falls far short of probable cause.
Brown, 731 F.2d 1494. Brown did not involve a traffic stop, and the opinion does
not reference or involve driver’s licenses.2
Alabama law defines a “driver” as “[e]very person who drives or is in actual
physical control of a vehicle.” § 32-1-1.1(14), Ala. Code, 1975. Alabama law
Every licensee shall have his or her license in his or her immediate
possession at all times when driving a motor vehicle and shall display
the same, upon demand of a judge of any court, a peace officer, or a
state trooper. However, no person charged with violating this section
shall be convicted if he or she produces in court or the office of the
arresting officer a driver's license theretofore issued to him or her and
valid at the time of his or her arrest.
Section 32-6-9(a), Ala. Code, 1975. Concerning the production of a license upon
demand, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has held:
Observing a violation of the state traffic and vehicle safety
regulations, the State Trooper had a statutory right to request and
inspect the driver's operating license. See Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S.
648, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 1398, 59 L.Ed.2d 660 (1979). The trooper had a
right to “request” or “demand” the defendant's driver's license. The
driver had a statutory duty to “display the same.” Alabama Code 1975,
In fact, Brown only mentions automobiles once, and that is used in contrast to the search of an
actual person. “Consensual access to another's body as a place of concealment is so unlikely to be
casual, unlike access to a car or house, that a more particularized examination of the defendant's
dominion and efforts to guarantee privacy, of the kind undertaken in cases involving cars or
houses, would not be helpful.” Brown, 731 F.2d at 1496.
Sly v. State, 387 So. 2d 913, 916 (Ala. Crim. App.), writ denied sub nom. Ex parte
Sly, 387 So. 2d 917 (Ala. 1980). As to probable cause “if the person was not
observed actually driving,” the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has stated “that
circumstantial evidence may be used to show that the defendant was driving.”
McLaney v. City of Montgomery, 570 So. 2d 881, 882 (Ala. 1990).
It is beyond dispute that Lawrence was “in actual physical control of a
vehicle,” and therefore met the statutory definition of a driver. Moreover, the cell
phone video clearly indicates that Lawrence told Woodruff no fewer than four times
that he was leaving while she was attempting to verify his identity and before she
appears in the video behind the silver Lexus copying the license plate number.
During his protestations, Lawrence leaned out of the window of the silver
Lexus and said to Woodruff: “Ok, you’re enforcing a statutory code. Do you know
the legal definition of that statutory code? Do you know what the definition of
‘driving’ is under Black’s Law Dictionary which is the statutory writing for that
code?” As Woodruff walked behind the silver Lexus, Lawrence got out of the car
and stated, “This officer is withholding us. She is blocking our vehicle from
leaving.” Based on the video evidence in this case, it is clear that while Woodruff
was lawfully detaining Lawrence for the purpose of copying the license plate
information from the silver Lexus, Lawrence repeatedly protested that he was
leaving and had no intent of producing a driver’s license. Lawrence’s agitated,
obstructive behavior regarding whether he had a driver’s license and whether
Woodruff knew the legal definition of “driving” gave rise to probable cause for
Woodruff to reasonably suspect that Lawrence did not have a driver’s license and
was about to drive without a license. See § 15-5-30. Accordingly, Woodruff had
statutory authority to demand that Lawrence produce a driver’s license, and he had
a statutory duty to comply. See § 32-6-9(a).
b. The Arrest
Plaintiff argues that
arrest was a direct result of Woodruff’s
unlawful detention. Of course, because the detention was unlawful, Lawrence’s
arrest was also unlawful.” (Doc. 70 at 40). The Eleventh Circuit has held:
Plainly, an arrest without probable cause violates the right to be
free from an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. See
Redd v. City of Enterprise, 140 F.3d 1378, 1382 (11th Cir. 1998) (“[A]n
arrest made without probable cause violates the Fourth Amendment.”).
Under federal law, probable cause to arrest exists “when an arrest is
‘objectively reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances.’”
McCormick v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 333 F.3d 1234, 1243 (11th Cir.
2003) (quoting Ferraro, 284 F.3d at 1195). “This standard is met when
the facts and circumstances within the officer's knowledge, of which he
or she has reasonably trustworthy information, would cause a prudent
person to believe, under the circumstances shown, that the suspect has
committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense.” Id.
(internal citation and quotation marks omitted). “Although probable
cause requires more than suspicion, it ‘does not require convincing
proof,’ and ‘need not reach the [same] standard of conclusiveness and
probability as the facts necessary to support a conviction.’” Ferraro,
284 F.3d at 1195 (internal citations omitted).
Durruthy v. Pastor, 351 F.3d 1080, 1088 (11th Cir. 2003)(emphasis in original).
Upon Lawrence’s agitated, confrontational refusal to produce a driver’s
license, Woodruff had reasonably trustworthy information that would lead a prudent
officer to believe that Lawrence was about to commit an offense, i.e., driving without
a license. Accordingly, she was authorized to execute a lawful arrest of Lawrence.
The United States Supreme Court as well as the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals
have allowed the collective knowledge of the investigating officers to be imputed to
each participating officer. See United States v. Hensley, 469 U.S. 221, 232, 105 S.Ct.
675, 83 L.Ed.2d 604 (1985); Shute v. State, 469 So. 2d 670, 673 (Ala. Crim. App.
1984)(“The knowledge of all the officers involved in a police situation may be
evaluated collectively in assessing whether that knowledge constituted probable
cause as is constitutionally required.”). Accordingly, Woodruff’s knowledge of
Lawrence’s refusal to produce a driver’s license upon demand while he was in actual
physical control of a vehicle may also be imputed to Rhodes in his subsequent arrest
b. Deadly Force During the Arrest
In the context of deadly force, the Supreme Court has set out
examples of factors that justify the use of such force:
“Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the
suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to
Additionally, Lawrence’s refusal to remain at a safe distance by his car while Rhodes and
Woodruff spoke after Rhodes arrived on the scene would have been probable cause for an arrest
based on violation of Alabama’s statute prohibiting obstruction of governmental operations. §
13A-10-2, Ala. Code, 1975.
the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally
unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.
Thus, if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon ...
deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape,
and if, where feasible, some warning has been given.”
Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 105 S.Ct. 1694, 1701, 85 L.Ed. 2d 1
(1985). Garner says something about deadly force but not everything,
especially when facts vastly different from Garner are presented. The
Supreme Court has cautioned that “Garner did not establish a magical
on/off switch that triggers rigid preconditions whenever an officer's
actions constitute ‘deadly force.’ ” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 127
S.Ct. 1769, 1777, 167 L.Ed. 2d 686 (2007).
Because “[t]he test of reasonableness under the Fourth
Amendment is not capable of precise definition or mechanical
application,” Graham, 109 S.Ct. at 1872 (quoting Bell v. Wolfish, 441
U.S. 520, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 60 L.Ed. 2d 447 (1979)) (alteration in
original), we must “slosh our way through the factbound morass of
‘reasonableness.’ ” Scott, 127 S.Ct. at 1778. Therefore, determining
whether “the use of a particular type of force in a particular situation”
is “reasonable” in the constitutional sense requires a court to “balance
the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth
Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental
interests alleged to justify the intrusion.” Scott, 127 S.Ct. at 1777, 1778
(quoting United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 103 S.Ct. 2637, 2642,
77 L.Ed. 2d 110 (1983)).
In examining whether an officer's use of deadly force is
reasonable, we recognize 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, 109 S.Ct. at 1872. So “[w]e are loath to
second-guess the decisions made by police officers in the field.”
Vaughan v. Cox, 343 F.3d 1323, 1331 (11th Cir.2003).
Long v. Slaton, 508 F.3d 576, 580–81 (11th Cir. 2007) (footnote omitted).
Turning to the undisputed facts and video evidence in this case, Lawrence was
consistently confrontational, uncooperative, and at times belligerent during his
encounter with Woodruff and Rhodes. Aside from producing a homemade affidavit
of identity and admitting that he was from Geneva County, Lawrence was
antagonistic or actively resistant to every request and command Woodruff and
Rhodes directed to him. Lawrence did not merely resist arrest. He actively resisted
despite three officers simultaneously attempting to apprehend him. The deployment
of a Taser in both prong and drive stun modes had no apparent effect on Lawrence.
Lawrence continued to physically struggle, escaped from Rhodes, and led officers
on a chase around the silver Lexus in which his girlfriend and three small children
were present. He continued his struggle despite the threat his actions posed to the
arresting officers and to his own loved ones, who can be heard throughout the
Plaintiff does not specifically argue that the use of the Taser against Lawrence
was excessive force, but Plaintiff argues that the arrest was unlawful and “he was
legally entitled to [resist]…” (Doc. 70 at 49). As to Lawrence’s behavior leading up
to Rhodes’s use of the Taser against him, the Eleventh Circuit has found the use of
a Taser reasonable under closely similar circumstances. In Hoyt v. Cooks, 672 F.3d
972, 979 (11th Cir. 2012), the decedent “resisted during the entire time that [two
officers] tried to handcuff him. He spread his arms apart to prevent being handcuffed,
and he rolled around to keep his arms from being pulled behind his back. Even after
repeatedly using their Tasers, [the two officers] had considerable difficulty in
effecting the arrest.” The Eleventh Circuit held that the two defendant officers
“could not wait indefinitely for Allen to stop resisting or for his strange behavior to
subside. Allen could not be safely transported until he was restrained. We cannot
conclude that clearly established law prevented [the officers] from using their Tasers
in the manner used here. Other alternatives, e.g. brute physical force, also presented
dangers both to Allen and the officers.” Hoyt, 672 F.3d at 980. Similarly, Lawrence
can be clearly seen on video resisting arrest, stretching out his arms, shouting at the
officers, attempting to escape, running away, and showing no visible effect from the
Taser bring deployed against him. Brute force and a nonlethal Taser showed no
signs of subduing Lawrence or dissuading him from continuing this struggle inches
from his small children. Woodruff and Rhodes could not wait indefinitely for
Lawrence to stop resisting arrest or merely hope that Lawrence would tire out before
they did. See Callwood v. Jones, 727 F. App'x 552, 560–61 (11th Cir. 2018), cert.
denied, No. 17-1569, 2018 WL 2303441 (U.S. Oct. 1, 2018)(“Throughout the
incident, Illidge resisted all of the officers’ attempts to subdue him and ignored their
repeated requests to calm down. A reasonable officer could have believed that Illidge
continued to resist arrest and that he posed a danger to the officers and himself by
The Eleventh Circuit has recognized that when dealing with a traffic stop in
which the arrestee failed to comply with documentary requests, “acted in a
confrontational and agitated manner,” and repeatedly refused to comply with
reasonable instructions, even a simple “verbal arrest command accompanied by
attempted physical handcuffing” can escalate “a tense and difficult situation into a
serious physical struggle in which either [officer or arrestee] would be seriously
hurt.” Draper v. Reynolds, 369 F.3d 1270, 1276-78 (11th Cir. 2004).
construing the evidence in this case in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, it is
beyond dispute that Lawrence refused to comply with requests, was confrontational,
agitated, resistant to verbal commands, and that this tense and difficult situation
devolved into a serious physical struggle specifically because Lawrence resisted an
attempted physical handcuffing.
Plaintiff argues that “Lawrence was not a threat of serious physical harm to
the officers at the time he was shot, and no warning was given despite an ample
opportunity to give one.” (Doc. 70 at 49). Plaintiff’s argument that “Lawrence was
not a threat of serious physical harm to the officers at the time he was shot” fails on
several grounds. Plaintiff’s argument assumes that “Lawrence [was trying] to keep
Woodruff from hurting him with the Taser,” but that Lawrence being in possession
of the Taser “was not a threat of serious physical harm to the officers…” (Doc. 70
at 49). 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 be “not a threat” to the officers with whom he was wrestling is simply
untenable. Plaintiff argues that “Lawrence grabbed the Taser by the body as an act
of self protection, that he never possessed the Taser, and that he was not even close
to having the ability to use the Taser as a weapon.” (Doc. 70 at 45). In light of the
video evidence from Rhodes’s patrol vehicle camera, Plaintiff’s argument is
speculative at best and illogical at worst, i.e. that Lawrence could somehow “grab”
the Taser yet not “possess” it. The video is not clear enough to determine what
specific part of the Taser was in Lawrence’s hand, but it is clear that he possessed
the Taser and continued to possess it until Woodruff shot him, at which point he can
be seen dropping the Taser. By Plaintiff’s own argument, it is impossible that
anyone else had possession of the Taser when he was shot, because Woodruff had
reached for her gun, Skipper was holding “Lawrence’s arm out from his body,” and
Rhodes was using his body to restrain Lawrence. (Doc. 70 at 45-46). Moreover, the
standard is not whether Lawrence “was not a threat of serious physical harm to the
officers…” (Doc. 70 at 49), but whether Woodruff had “probable cause to believe
that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to
others…” Smith, 834 F.3d at 1295. It is not Lawrence’s subjective intent imposed
by hindsight, but the officer’s objective probable cause to believe a threat of serious
physical harm is present in the split-second situation that guides the Court’s decision.
Whether Lawrence was holding the Taser by the “body” or had the ability to
pull the trigger is not discernible in the video evidence, nor is it the standard by
which deadly force cases are analyzed. “Although we view the facts in the light
most favorable to the non-moving party,” the court must view that evidence as “it
would appear to a reasonable officer at the scene.” Zivojinovich v. Barner, 525 F.3d
1059, 1073 (11th Cir. 2008). “In analyzing whether excessive force was used, courts
must look at the totality of the circumstances: not just a small slice of the acts that
happened at the tail of the story.” Garrett v. Athens-Clarke Cty., Ga., 378 F.3d 1274,
1280 (11th Cir. 2004). “And an officer need not wait until he is attacked physically
before determining reasonably that he is in imminent danger of serious injury. Cf.
Long v. Slaton, 508 F.3d 576, 583 (11th Cir. 2007) (concluding the use of deadly
force was reasonable, even though other less-lethal means of preventing the suspect's
escape may have existed, because ‘the police need not have taken that chance and
hoped for the best.’).” Wilson v. Miller, 650 F. App'x 676, 680 (11th Cir. 2016).
The Eleventh Circuit recently affirmed summary judgment in favor of an
officer who shot a suspect who “charged at [the officer] while holding a stick that
was five and one-half feet long,” even though the suspect had not raised or swung
the stick because “‘[t]he law does not require officers in a tense and dangerous
situation to wait until the moment a suspect uses a deadly weapon to act to stop the
suspect.’” Wilson v. Parker, No. 17-15294, 2018 WL 3954222, at *3 (11th Cir. Aug.
17, 2018)(quoting Jean-Baptiste v. Gutierrez, 627 F.3d 816, 821 (11th Cir. 2010)
(alteration omitted)(quoting in turn Long v. Slaton, 508 F.3d 576, 581 (11th Cir.
2007) ). Lawrence had already shown himself willing and powerful enough to
escape from at least two officers attempting to effect an arrest. The law did not
require Woodruff to “hope for the best” after Lawrence took possession of the Taser
or even that she hope that Skipper would be able to restrain Lawrence’s arm after
having seen him escape from Rhodes moments earlier. See also Wells for Chambers
v. Talton, 695 F. App'x 439, 445 n.2 (11th Cir. 2017)(“The fact that [the police
officer] was later found to be mistaken about [the suspect] having the gun as he ran
away does not defeat qualified immunity. See Penley [v. Eslinger], 605 F.3d [843,]
854[, (11th Cir. 2010)] (finding that officer's use of deadly force was reasonable
where suspect held a toy gun modified to look like a real gun).”).
As to Woodruff’s failure to give a warning to Lawrence prior to the use of
deadly force, the Eleventh Circuit has stated that
The mere failure to give a warning, however, does not preclude
summary judgment where the facts otherwise indicate that the officer's
use of force was reasonable. See Penley v. Eslinger, 605 F.3d 843, 854
n.6 (11th Cir. 2010); see also Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 382, 127
S.Ct. 1769, 1777, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007) (“Garner did not establish a
magical on/off switch that triggers rigid preconditions whenever an
officer's actions constitute ‘deadly force.’”).
Talton, 695 F. App'x at 444. Video evidence from Rhodes’s patrol vehicle camera
further shows several instances in which Woodruff approached Lawrence to apply
the Taser in drive stun mode, and Lawrence can be seen reaching toward the Taser.
Even in the less intense “drive stun” mode, the Taser is a weapon capable of
inflicting sufficient pain to impose compliance over another during a struggle. In
the moments that Lawrence reached for and ultimately gained possession of the
Taser from Woodruff, any reasonable officer could believe that Lawrence intended
to use the Taser against officers to cause them severe pain in order to effect an
escape. Specifically in this case, a reasonable office would know that after a
prolonged and physical resistance to arrest and continuous efforts to escape,
Lawrence continued to struggle for over two minutes despite three persons being
involved in an increasingly futile effort to restrain him. Lawrence was seemingly
unaffected by commands and Taser shocks, and had somehow managed to take the
Taser away from one of the arresting officers, all within feet and even inches from
the arrestee’s girlfriend and three small children. Although the offense that triggered
the arrest was relatively minor, Lawrence’s belligerent, defiant behavior needlessly
escalated the severity of the encounter. The Eleventh Circuit has held that “a person
acting unpredictably could present an increased threat to others” such that pausing
to give a warning that an officer intends to use deadly force is not feasible. Wilson,
2018 WL 3954222, at *3. Wrestling the Taser away from Woodruff presented an
immediate threat to the arresting officers, obviating the opportunity for Woodruff to
issue a warning prior to using deadly force.
Lawrence had shown himself
impervious to verbal and physical restraint and showed no signs of being subdued
by use of the Taser. Having armed himself with the Taser, Lawrence presented an
immediate threat to all the officers such that it was reasonable for Woodruff to use
deadly force without further warning, all the more so in the face of Lawrence’s
demonstrated imperviousness to all verbal commands, physical restraint, or repeated
application of the Taser.
Lawrence actively resisted arrest and attempted to escape and evade arrest
throughout the encounter. Lawrence’s shooting death is a tragedy. However, it was
not objectively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. See Martinez v. City of
Pembroke Pines, 648 F. App'x 888, 893 (11th Cir. 2016)(“Plaintiff was unresponsive
to all commands and gestures, impervious to the taser, and otherwise unable to be
restrained.”). “[T]he question is whether the officers' actions are ‘objectively
reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard
to their underlying intent or motivation.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 397. Because
Woodruff was faced with the split-second decision regarding the force necessary to
prevent a physically resistant arrestee from turning a weapon on the officers
attempting to secure his arrest, her actions were not objectively unreasonable.
c. Qualified Immunity
Even if Woodruff’s use of deadly force was excessive under the Fourth
Amendment, she is alternatively entitled to qualified immunity because she violated
no clearly established right. See Long, 508 F.3d at 583-4. Qualified immunity
protects government officials from suit if they are “performing discretionary
functions” and “their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or
constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v.
Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). Qualified
immunity is an entitlement not to stand trial or face the other burdens of litigation.
Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 525–26, 105 S. Ct. 2806, 2815, 86 L. Ed. 2d 411
(1985). It balances the need to hold the government accountable with the need to
protect officers from the distractions of litigation. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S.
223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009).
“We have said many times that if case law, in factual terms, has not
staked out a bright line, qualified immunity almost always protects the
defendant.” Priester v. City of Riviera Beach, 208 F.3d 919, 926 (11th
Cir. 2000) (quotations omitted). In determining whether a right is
clearly established, we look to the precedent of the Supreme Court of
the United States, of this Court, and of the relevant state's highest court.
McClish v. Nugent, 483 F.3d 1231, 1237 (11th Cir. 2007).
Hoyt, 672 F.3d at 977.
In resolving questions of qualified immunity at summary
judgment, courts engage in a two-pronged inquiry. The first asks
whether the facts, “[t]aken in the light most favorable to the party
asserting the injury, ... show the officer's conduct violated a [federal]
right [.]” Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150
L.Ed.2d 272 (2001). When a plaintiff alleges excessive force during an
investigation or arrest, the federal right at issue is the Fourth
Amendment right against unreasonable seizures. Graham v. Connor,
490 U.S. 386, 394, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989). The
inquiry into whether this right was violated requires a balancing of “‘the
nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth
Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental
interests alleged to justify the intrusion.’” Tennessee v. Garner, 471
U.S. 1, 8, 105 S.Ct. 1694, 85 L.Ed.2d 1 (1985); see Graham, supra, at
396, 109 S.Ct. 1865.
The second prong of the qualified-immunity analysis asks
whether the right in question was “clearly established” at the time of
the violation. Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 153
L.Ed.2d 666 (2002). Governmental actors are “shielded from liability
for civil damages if their actions did not violate ‘clearly established
statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would
have known.’ ” Ibid. “[T]he salient question ... is whether the state of
the law” at the time of an incident provided “fair warning” to the
defendants “that their alleged [conduct] was unconstitutional.” Id., at
741, 122 S.Ct. 2508.
Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 134 S. Ct. 1861, 1865–66, 188 L. Ed. 2d 895
Plaintiff does not dispute that Woodruff was performing a discretionary
function when she encountered Lawrence. (Doc. 43 at 21). Thus, the burden is on
Plaintiff to prove that Woodruff is not entitled to qualified immunity. Dalrymple v.
Reno, 334 F.3d 991, 995 (11th Cir. 2003) (“Once the government official has
established that she was acting within her discretionary authority, the burden shifts
to the plaintiffs to show that qualified immunity is not appropriate”).
“The salient question” is whether the law gave Defendant “fair
warning” that his conduct was unconstitutional. Hope v. Pelzer, 536
U.S. 730, 740–41, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002). There are
three ways for Plaintiff to prove that a right is clearly established: “(1)
case law with indistinguishable facts clearly establishing the
constitutional right; (2) a broad statement of principle within the
Constitution, statute, or case law that clearly establishes a constitutional
right; or (3) conduct so egregious that a constitutional right was clearly
violated, even in the total absence of case law.” Lewis v. City of West
Palm Beach, 561 F.3d 1288, 1291–92 (11th Cir. 2009) (citations
Mighty v. Miami-Dade Cty., 728 F. App'x 974, 978 (11th Cir. 2018). Plaintiff does
not clearly designate which of the three methods he intends to invoke to establish
that Woodruff violated a clearly established constitutional right enjoyed by
Lawrence. However, Plaintiff relies on two cases for the proposition that Woodruff
was on notice: Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 11–12, 105 S. Ct. 1694, 1701, 85
L. Ed. 2d 1 (1985)( “if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is
probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or
threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used if necessary
to prevent escape, and if, where feasible, some warning has been given.”); and
Mercado v. City of Orlando, 407 F.3d 1152, 1159–60 (11th Cir. 2005) (“Mercado,
however, relies on the principle that deadly force cannot be employed in a situation
that requires less-than-lethal force.”). Specifically, Plaintiff argues that “Garner
makes clear that even fleeing felons have a right not to be seized by deadly force and
that deadly force is only intended to be used to stop dangerous persons who refuse
to submit to arrest. Certainly, Lawrence’s rights are greater than such persons.”
(Doc. 43 at 20).
In Mercado, the Eleventh Circuit held:
Officer Padilla should not have needed case law to know that by
intentionally shooting Mercado in the head, he was violating Mercado's
Fourth Amendment rights. When the officers entered the apartment,
they found Mercado crying on the floor of his kitchen with a loose cord
around his neck and a kitchen knife placed up to, but not poking into,
his chest. From a distance of about six feet away, Padilla twice shouted
for Mercado to drop his knife, and then discharged the Sage Launcher,
[ 4] hitting Mercado in the head from short range. Assuming that Padilla
was aiming at Mercado's head intentionally, his use of force was clearly
Mercado, 407 F.3d at 1160–61. The facts of Mercado are materially distinguishable
from this case. Mercado was not physically struggling with officers, resisting arrest,
or attempting to take control of a weapon being held by a law enforcement officer.
Further, no broad statement of principle from Mercado is readily applicable to this
case, specifically because that holding was based on the third method of determining
“fair warning” of a constitutional violation:
this is one of the cases that lie “so obviously at the very core of what
the Fourth Amendment prohibits that the unlawfulness of the conduct
was readily apparent to the official, notwithstanding the lack of case
law.” Ferraro, 284 F.3d at 1199 (internal quotation and citation
omitted). The facts in this case are also “so far beyond the hazy border
The Eleventh Circuit noted that:
The Sage Launcher is a “less lethal” munition that fires a polyurethane baton that
is 1.5 inches wide, travels approximately 240 feet per second, and delivers a force
of 154 foot/pounds of energy-approximately the energy of a professionally-thrown
baseball. The Sage Launcher was designed to be used to protect persons from selfinflicted injury, especially when using a night stick or baton would be unsafe or
impractical. The projectile is not designed to penetrate the body, but only to leave
Mercado, 407 F.3d at 1155.
between excessive and acceptable force that [the official] had to know
he was violating the Constitution even without caselaw on point.”
Willingham, 321 F.3d at 1303.
Mercado, 407 F.3d at 1160.
Turning to the facts in Garner, Edward Garner was a burglary suspect fleeing
from officers in Memphis, Tennessee.
Garner, stopped at a 6-feet-high chain link fence at the edge of [a] yard.
With the aid of a flashlight, [police officer] Hymon was able to see
Garner's face and hands. He saw no sign of a weapon, and, though not
certain, was “reasonably sure” and “figured” that Garner was unarmed.
App. 41, 56; Record 219. He thought Garner was 17 or 18 years old and
about 5′5″ or 5′7″ tall. While Garner was crouched at the base of the
fence, Hymon called out “police, halt” and took a few steps toward him.
Garner then began to climb over the fence. Convinced that if Garner
made it over the fence he would elude capture, Hymon shot him. The
bullet hit Garner in the back of the head. Garner was taken by
ambulance to a hospital, where he died on the operating table.
Garner, 471 U.S. at 3–4 (footnotes omitted). On those facts, the Supreme Court
Where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat
to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not
justify the use of deadly force to do so. It is no doubt unfortunate when
a suspect who is in sight escapes, but the fact that the police arrive a
little late or are a little slower afoot does not always justify killing the
suspect. A police officer may not seize an unarmed, nondangerous
suspect by shooting him dead. The Tennessee statute is unconstitutional
insofar as it authorizes the use of deadly force against such fleeing
It is not, however, unconstitutional on its face. Where the officer
has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious
physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally
unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force. Thus, if the
suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause
to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or
threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used
if necessary to prevent escape, and if, where feasible, some warning has
Garner, 471 U.S. at 11–12. Again, as in Mercado, Garner was not physically
struggling with officers, actively resisting arrest, or attempting to and/or taking
control of a weapon being held by a law enforcement officer. Further, Woodruff did
not aim for or shoot Lawrence in the head as officers did in both Garner and
Mercado and Garner are both factually distinguishable,5 and the broad
general principles announced in those cases are inapposite to this case. See Garner,
471 U.S. at 11 (1985) (“Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the
suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is
not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.”);
Mercado, 407 F.3d at 1160 (“Officer Padilla should not have needed case law to
Plaintiff appears to concede that Garner is factually distinguishable. “Though this is not a fleeing
felon case, the law established in Garner provides an important frame of reference for
consideration of plaintiff’s claim.” (Doc. 43 at 19). The Supreme Court has declined to expand
the application of Garner beyond the fact-specific constraints of that decision. See Scott v. Harris,
550 U.S. 372, 382–83, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 1777, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007) (“Garner was simply an
application of the Fourth Amendment's ‘reasonableness’ test, Graham, supra, at 388, 109 S.Ct.
1865, to the use of a particular type of force in a particular situation. Garner held that it was
unreasonable to kill a ‘young, slight, and unarmed burglary suspect, 471 U.S., at 21, 105 S.Ct.
1694, by shooting him ‘in the back of the head’ while he was running away on foot, id., at 4, 105
S.Ct. 1694, and when the officer ‘could not reasonably have believed that [the suspect] ... posed
any threat,’ and ‘never attempted to justify his actions on any basis other than the need to prevent
an escape,’ id., at 21, 105 S.Ct. 1694.”).
know that by intentionally shooting Mercado in the head, he was violating Mercado's
Fourth Amendment rights.”).
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. Lawrence was visibly and vocally resistant throughout
the incident. 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
possession of the very weapon law enforcement had ineffectually used in the effort
to subdue him and take him into custody without resort to deadly force. 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, Rhodes, and Skipper.
Again, we must look at the situation not with hindsight, but with the
eye of the objectively reasonable officer on the scene. From the scene,
we have a man who for a considerable time has consistently put his life
and the lives of others in danger and who has shown that he has every
intention of fighting and forcibly escaping arrest if possible. We cannot
say the defendants' acts were beyond the outside borders of objective
reasonableness given all the circumstances.
Garrett v. Athens-Clarke Cty., Ga., 378 F.3d 1274, 1281 (11th Cir. 2004).
The Supreme Court recently held in favor of qualified immunity for a police
officer a case in which a suspect who had engaged in erratic behavior “was armed
with a large knife; was within striking distance of [a bystander]; ignored the officers'
orders to drop the weapon; and the situation unfolded in less than a minute. Kisela
v. Hughes, 138 S. Ct. 1148, 1154, 200 L. Ed. 2d 449 (2018). In this case, Lawrence
displayed agitated, confrontational behavior, armed himself by taking possession of
an officer’s weapon, was within striking distance to two officers, had ignored almost
every command leading up to that moment, and the situation unfolded in a very brief
period of time. Woodruff reasonably believed, even if perhaps mistakenly, that
Lawrence was an immediate threat to others.
Where constitutional guidelines seem inapplicable or too remote, it
does not suffice for a court simply to state that an officer may not use
unreasonable and excessive force, deny qualified immunity, and then
remit the case for a trial on the question of reasonableness. An officer
“cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the
right's contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in
the defendant's shoes would have understood that he was violating it.”
Plumhoff v. Rickard, 572 U.S. ––––, ––––, 134 S.Ct. 2012, 2023, 188
L.Ed.2d 1056 (2014).
Kisela, 138 S. Ct. at 1153, 200 L. Ed. 2d 449 (2018). In this case, a reasonable
officer, confronted with a physically and verbally resistant arrestee who had
managed to take control over an officer’s weapon in the course of an ongoing
struggle with those officers, could have reasonably believed that Lawrence presented
an immediate threat of serious physical harm to her and the other officers present.
There is no sufficiently definite existing precedent that squarely governs the specific
facts at issue. Accordingly, Woodruff is entitled to qualified immunity.
2. Count II – State Law Claims
In the Complaint, Plaintiff alleged a state law claim of “Assault and
Battery/Excessive Force,” specifically arguing that “Woodruff shot and killed
Lawrence … in violation of clear City policy regarding when deadly force is
permissible.” (Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 71-72). In her motion for summary judgment, Woodruff
argues that she is “entitled to peace officer/state agent immunity under § 6-5-338(a),
Ala. Code 1975 and Ex parte Cranman, 792 So. 2d 392 (Ala. 2000).” (Doc. 64 at
53). Plaintiff also moved for summary judgment as to Count II of the Complaint.
(Doc. 43 at 28)(“[T]his Court should grant plaintiff’s motion and enter judgment for
plaintiff as to liability regarding plaintiff’s excessive force claim against defendant
Woodruff.”). In response to Woodruff’s invocation of state agent and peace officer
immunity, Plaintiff argues that Woodruff is not entitled to immunity because “a
reasonable jury can conclude that Woodruff lacked arguable reasonable suspicion
for a Terry stop and that Woodruff used excessive force on Lawrence, in violation
of U.S. Constitution and § 1983. A reasonable jury can also conclude, therefore, that
Woodruff acted contrary to the Constitution and also willfully, maliciously, in bad
faith, and beyond her authority.” (Doc. 70 at 50). Plaintiff raised no other argument
in reference to peace officer or state agent immunity in any brief or objection before
Under Alabama law, “[s]tate-agent immunity protects state
employees, as agents of the State, in the exercise of their judgment in
executing their work responsibilities.” Ex parte Hayles, 852 So.2d 117,
122 (Ala.2002). In Ex parte Cranman, 792 So.2d 392 (Ala.2000), a
plurality of the Alabama Supreme Court restated and clarified the scope
of Alabama's state-agent immunity doctrine, which bars suit against law
enforcement officers effecting arrests, except to the extent the officer
acted willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond his legal
authority, or under a mistaken interpretation of law, or if the
Constitution or laws of the United States or Alabama require otherwise.
Id. at 405.
There is also statutory, discretionary-function immunity in
Alabama. Specifically, § 6–5–338 of the Alabama Code contains a
provision immunizing law enforcement officers from tort liability for
conduct within the scope of their discretionary law enforcement duties.
Ala. Code § 6–5–338(a) (1994) (“Every peace officer ... shall have
immunity from tort liability arising out of his or her conduct in
performance of any discretionary function within the line and scope of
his or her law enforcement duties.”). Cranman's test for state-agent
immunity governs whether law enforcement officers are entitled to
statutory, discretionary-function immunity under § 6–5–338(a). Ex
parte City of Tuskegee, 932 So. 2d 895, 904 (Ala. 2005) (“The
restatement of State-agent immunity as set out in Cranman, 792 So. 2d
at 405, now governs the determination of whether a peace officer is
entitled to immunity under § 6–5–338(a).”). So for our purposes, the
question of whether … police officers … receive immunity for
Plaintiffs' state-law claims depends on application of Cranman's stateagent immunity test.
The Alabama Supreme Court established a burden-shifting
framework for application of the state-agent immunity test. A defendant
initially bears the burden of demonstrating that he was acting in a
function that would entitle the agent to immunity. Ex parte Estate of
Reynolds, 946 So.2d 450, 452 (Ala. 2006). “If the State agent makes
such a showing, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff to show that the
State agent acted willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith, or
beyond his or her authority.” Id.
Brown v. City of Huntsville, Ala., 608 F.3d 724, 740–41 (11th Cir. 2010).
Turning to Plaintiff’s claim against Woodruff, Plaintiff appears to dispute that
Woodruff was acting within the scope of her discretionary functions as law
enforcement officer because, he argues, “a reasonable jury can conclude that
Woodruff lacked arguable reasonable suspicion for a Terry stop and that Woodruff
used excessive force on Lawrence, in violation of U.S. Constitution and § 1983.”
(Doc. 70 at 50). However, Plaintiff’s argument is inconsistent with his earlier
statement in his Motion for Partial Summary Judgment that “[i]n qualified immunity
analysis, once a public official has shown he or she was acting within the scope of
his or his discretionary authority, which defendant has here, the burden shifts to the
plaintiff to show the official’s conduct violated clearly established law.” (Doc. 43 at
The Alabama Supreme Court has applied the same “arguable probable
cause” standard utilized in this Court's federal qualified immunity cases
for determining whether a city police officer receives state-agent
immunity for his role in an arrest. Borders v. City of Huntsville, 875
So.2d 1168, 1180 (Ala.2003) (“If ... a jury question exists as to whether
[the officer] acted with arguable probable cause, [then] the summary
judgment [to the officer] must be reversed.”).
Brown, 608 F.3d at 741. Regardless of Plaintiff’s conflicting arguments regarding
discretionary function, as discussed above Woodruff is entitled to receive qualified
immunity for her conduct in arresting Lawrence because the facts, construed in the
light most favorable to the Plaintiff, show that Woodruff had probable cause to arrest
Lawrence. That same analysis applies to determining whether Woodruff receives
state-agent immunity for her role in the arrest. Plaintiff thus bears the burden of
showing that Woodruff acted willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith,
beyond her legal authority, or under a mistaken interpretation of the law.
As to Plaintiff’s state law claim of assault and battery/excessive force, he has
not carried his burden to show facts supporting willful, malicious, fraudulent, bad
faith, or legally unauthorized actions by Woodruff against Lawrence. As noted
above, Plaintiff’s entire argument as to this issue is that “a reasonable jury can also
conclude, therefore, that Woodruff acted contrary to the Constitution and also
willfully, maliciously, in bad faith, and beyond her authority.” (Doc. 70 at 50).
Plaintiff has argued a bare, unadorned legal conclusion that is simply insufficient to
meet this burden. Woodruff’s “use of force against [Lawrence] does not constitute
a constitutional violation, and neither does it show the required willfulness,
maliciousness, fraud, or bad faith necessary to deny [Woodruff] state-agent and
statutory, discretionary-function immunity.” Brown, 608 F.3d at 742. Accordingly,
Woodruff’s motion for summary judgment as to Count II of the Complaint is due to
After an independent and de novo review of the record, the court concludes
that the magistrate judge’s recommendation should be adopted in part and rejected
in part. Accordingly and for the reasons herein stated, it is
ORDERED that Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 43)
be and is DENIED. It is further
ORDERED that Defendants’ City of Dothan, Alabama, Benton, and
Summerlin’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 63) be and is GRANTED. It is
ORDERED that Defendant Woodruff’s objection (Doc. 77) is SUSTAINED
and that her Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 63) be and is GRANTED.
A final judgment will be entered separately.
DONE and ORDERED this 8th day of November 2018.
/s/ Emily C. Marks
EMILY C. MARKS
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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