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Man holding gun aiming pistol in hand ready to shoot.

Helping stray dog leads to death of ‘sovereign citizen’ at hands of police

Robert Earl Lawrence, as a so-called “sovereign citizen,” didn’t respect the laws or the courts of the United States. But after an animal services police officer shot Lawrence to death in front of his girlfriend and children, his estate turned to those same courts to hold the officer accountable.

And a federal appeals court recently ruled the officer who shot Lawrence must face a civil suit brought by Lawrence’s family accusing the officer of excessive force.

A parking lot and a stray dog

The saga started simply enough, when Lawrence tried to help a stray dog he found in a Walmart parking lot in Dothan, AL, on Dec. 30, 2014.

“He was trying to do the right thing and he ended up shot dead in front of his children,” an attorney for his estate told the appeals court earlier this year. The estate is being represented by Chris Cantu, Lawrence’s cousin.

The court’s opinion, issued this month, described an almost literary tragedy in Lawrence’s demise, invoking the words of a Pulitzer-winning journalist known for writing about his family in Alabama:

“When Rick Bragg wrote about ‘a gothic story’ in which ‘you can see the bad luck tumbling, as if the devil himself had shaved the dice,’ he was talking about his father’s tragic life, but those words could also describe Robert Earl Lawrence’s effort to help a stray dog he found in a Walmart parking lot.”

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Sgt. Adrianne Woodruff, the police officer who shot Lawrence, can be sued for her actions. The court ruled Woodruff is not protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity, a legal defense that has sometimes shielded law enforcement from being held accountable in court for violating constitutional rights.

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Woodruff won’t face criminal charges in the shooting, however, after an internal investigation cleared her, according to AL.com. The news website reported that she testified in a deposition that the trauma from the shooting helped end her career and that she retired in 2015.

Woodruff also reportedly testified that the shooting was justified and that she had been in danger. She said she would do the same thing in the same circumstances again. A grand jury declined in 2015 to indict the officer.

Lawrence claimed to be a “sovereign citizen” 

Lawrence existed on the fringes of society, reportedly identifying as a sovereign citizen who believed he didn’t have to listen to government officials and could decide when to follow what laws.

On Dec. 30, 2014, the day he was killed, Lawrence took his girlfriend and their three children ranging from age 5 to 9, to a Walmart in Dothan. The appellate court decision described what happened there:

“They saw a stray dog outside the store. Lawrence gathered up the dog, put it in the car, and drove to the local animal shelter where he hoped to leave it. An official at the shelter asked Lawrence to provide identification and fill out some paperwork, which he didn’t think he should have to do. He just wanted to drop off the dog. Words were exchanged. Frustrated, Lawrence eventually said ‘fine,’ that he would just leave and let the dog out of the car at the end of the road that led to the shelter.”

Following standard practice when someone at the shelter threatens to abandon an animal, Woodruff, who was on duty at the shelter, followed Lawrence to his car to write down his tag number.

According to an earlier court decision, Woodruff saw an empty gun holster on Lawrence’s hip and asked him where the gun was. He told her it was in his car.

Lawrence told his girlfriend, “Get the video. This is going to be a good one.”

Lawrence got into the driver’s seat of the car, which was running. When Woodruff tried to write the tag number down, Lawrence got out and tried to block her view. The officer asked Lawrence for his driver’s license, and he refused, saying he didn’t have to show her one.

Instead, he showed her a piece of paper titled “Affidavit of Identity.” The paper declared Lawrence to be “Flesh and blood of living man.” Woodruff concluded Lawrence was a sovereign citizen.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a sovereign citizen believes “they — not judges, juries, law enforcement or elected officials — get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and they don’t think they should have to pay taxes. Sovereigns are clogging up the courts with indecipherable filings and when cornered, many of them lash out in rage, frustration and, in the most extreme cases, acts of deadly violence, usually directed against government officials. In May 2010, for example, a father-son team of sovereigns murdered two police officers with an assault rifle when they were pulled over on the interstate while traveling through West Memphis, Ark.”

Backup called

Woodruff, who was accompanied by Chief Animal Services Officer Renee Skipper, called for backup and detained Lawrence outside his car.

While waiting, they argued about whether Woodruff had to return the piece of paper. According to a lower court ruling, at one point, Lawrence said he was going to sue Woodruff for “unauthorized use of force, unlawful detention, [and] violation of the federal code under Title 42 section 241 and 242.”

The appellate decision continued:

“When the backup officer arrived at the shelter parking lot, still more words were exchanged. That officer told Lawrence that if he didn’t stop talking, he was going to jail. Lawrence didn’t stop talking and the backup officer, with the assistance of the other two officers on the scene, attempted to arrest and handcuff him. Lawrence would not submit and resisted –– not aggressively, but vigorously. He refused to put his hands behind his back as ordered, he struggled, and twice he temporarily freed himself from an officer’s grip and ran around the car trying to get away, but officers caught up with him. In the last moments of the encounter, while trying to get free from three officers again, he put his hand either on an officer’s taser, or on the officer’s wrist or hand that was holding the taser. In response, an officer pulled her service weapon and without warning, and to the surprise of the other two officers, shot Lawrence while he was being held. He was taken to a hospital where he died from the gunshot wound.”

The court wrote that several facts surrounding the shooting are in dispute. While much of it was captured on the cell phone video and on a dashboard camera, parts of what happened aren’t visible in the videos.

Shooting happened “suddenly and without warning”

“One thing that is indisputable is that Sergeant Woodruff acted suddenly and without warning,” the court wrote. “So much so that both of the other officers were startled by the shot and didn’t know where it came from. Officer Skipper testified that she was so surprised to hear the gunshot that she actually thought that she had been shot and ‘went blank.’ “

The backup officer, Alan Rhodes, later said he first thought he had been shot.

Rhodes subsequently testified he had Lawrence “backed up against the driver’s side door” and was able to detain him when Woodruff shot him. Another officer was on the way, and Rhodes had planned to just keep wrestling with Lawrence until help arrived to help put Lawrence in handcuffs and take him to jail.

The backup officer arrived less than two minutes after Lawrence was shot.

“By then,” the appeals decision says, “Lawrence was writhing in agony on the pavement while his girlfriend and the three children screamed from inside the car.”

Lawrence’s estate later sued the city of Dothan, Woodruff and others, alleging they violated Lawrence’s constitutional rights through the use of excessive force.”

A district court judge granted a motion to dismiss the case. But the appellate court reinstated it.

Contact Elaine Silvestrini at Elaine@legalexaminer.com. Follow her on Twitter at @WriterElaineS.