He dropped off a stray pooch at a shelter—and half an hour later, cops fatally shot him for refusing to show ID.
On Dec. 30, 2014, Robert Lawrence—a 30-year-old Alabama man—drove a stray dog to an animal shelter near his home in Dothan. Shelter staff asked Lawrence for his license and he refused, citing personal beliefs. He continued to refuse to show ID after police arrived on the scene. Minutes later, an officer fired a fatal shot into Lawrence’s abdomen.
Everything about the events of that day is under dispute, including Lawrence’s reasons for refusing to provide identification. After Lawrence died, the Dothan Police Department released a statement claiming he’d identified as a “sovereign citizen,” a person who believes themselves exempt from most national laws. The loose movement has been associated with a series of extremists, some of whom have carried out ambush attacks on police officers. But according to a new lawsuit, Lawrence was unarmed and unthreatening when police shot him in the stomach outside the animal shelter.
And those who know him say he wasn’t a sovereign citizen at all.
“Robert was no sovereign citizen,” his former lawyer Terry Bullard told The Daily Beast. Bullard represented Lawrence through years of brushes with police, which included several incidents in which Lawrence lacked proper identification or drove on a suspended license, public records show. “Police came up with that sovereign citizen crap from somewhere else.”
Bullard said he knew the officer who shot Lawrence; that she was overcome with guilt; and that he did not believe police’s description of Lawrence as a “sovereign citizen” was an attempt to smear the dead man.
But the detail is important to those who knew Lawrence.
Sovereign citizens, while not a unified group, have a fraught relationship with the law, which they believe often does not apply to them. Though the movement exploded on the far right during the early Obama years, its roots are in a cluster of old conspiracy theories that claim the current U.S. government is invalid. Sovereign citizens might claim all currency is a fraud (since it’s not based on the gold standard), or believe every American is secretly a corporation (each of which has a personal trust fund worth millions of dollars that is being withheld from them by the Treasury), or that any authorities above the county sheriff are ineligible to enforce laws (thereby freeing sovereign citizens of nearly any law they do not wish to follow). Believing themselves to be the victims of a tyrannical conspiracy, some sovereign citizens have carried out brutal murders of authorities, swiftly becoming one of the leading groups of cop-killers in recent years. In 2010, the FBI characterized the group as a major terrorist threat, and police websites have published countless guides on safely dealing with possible members.
While not all sovereign citizens are necessarily violent, the group is known for sometimes-tense relations with police. And so those close to Lawrence do not want the term to justify his death. After the shooting, his family also allegedly disputed his characterization as a “sovereign citizen,” according to one blogger who claimed to have spoken with them.
Lawrence’s refusal to provide a driver’s license at the animal shelter is among the only details on which both his friends and law enforcement agree.
“Shelter employees demanded that Lawrence provide a driver’s license as identification,” reads the new excessive force lawsuit filed by the administrator of Lawrence’s estate last week. The suit names the city of Dothan and three police officers as defendants. The city declined to comment on the suit, and Lawrence’s lawyers were unavailable for comment on Thursday.
“Lawrence provided his name but refused to provide a driver’s license based on his personal convictions and beliefs,” the suit reads.
Shelter staff called police on a disorderly conduct complaint, during which officers accused him of growing belligerent.
One officer refused to let Lawrence leave the shelter until he produced a driver’s license, the suit alleges. The officer allegedly tackled Lawrence, then let him up without cuffing him, and continued to ask for Lawrence’s license, while Lawrence continued to refuse to produce. Eventually, the officer announced Lawrence’s arrest, at which point Lawrence backed away with his hands up to resist his arresting officers, the suit claims. At this point, the officer tased Lawrence while another officer arrived on the scene for assistance.
But Lawrence’s lawyers say he presented no threat. Lawrence “did not assault or attempt to assault any officer,” the suit reads, adding that Lawrence “who openly carrie[d] a handgun, removed his gun and put it in his glovebox when [police] arrived.”
“Despite the lack of any threat of death or serious bodily harm to any officer, [the second officer] drew her weapon,” the estate’s lawyers claim. With the first officer allegedly looking on, the second officer “then shot Lawrence in the abdomen. Lawrence died from the gunshot wound.”
Police gave a different story.
“After repeatedly being told to calm down, Lawrence was advised he was being placed under arrest,” Dothan Police Sgt. Maurice Eggleston told Alabama.com after the shooting. “A physical altercation ensued, to which Lawrence was shot in the abdomen.”
But two years after the shooting, little evidence has been made public. Police have not released a police report on the incident, and refused to release one to The Daily Beast unless served with a subpoena. An investigation by Alabama District Attorney Doug Valeska concluded with a secret grand jury proceeding which declined to indict Lawrence’s arresting officers. During the proceeding, the jury reportedly viewed three videos of the incident, none of which have been released to the public.
In their suit, Lawrence’s lawyers wrote that the videos would prove excessive force by the officers.
“Despite reviewing evidence, including video recordings, clearly showing that Lawrence’s rights were violated, city policymakers determined the actions of the officers were within policy and constitutional limits,” the suit claimed.
Lawrence should never have been made to produce his license, his estate’s lawyers argue, adding that his failure to do so was not grounds for arrest.
“Because the detention and arrest were unlawful, under Alabama law Lawrence had a right to resist the arrest,” his suit claims.
Bullard, Lawrence’s former lawyer, said Lawrence was stubborn, maybe not a sovereign citizen, but the type of person to refuse police on principle.
“Robert had an unusual personality. He was a deep-thinking person,” Bullard said. “He was a good guy, always getting into minor stuff with police because he was hard-headed. He believed police should follow the rules.”
Lawrence’s brushes with the law were more than “minor.” Earlier in 2014, Lawrence was the subject of restraining orders from two women with whom he’d had children, the Dothan Eagle reported. One woman claimed he had choked her, while the other claimed he had threatened to kill her. Court records also show a 2006 arrest on aggravated stalking charges, and at least three later charges of driving without proper identification or registration.
In 2013 he was charged with making terrorist threats in a 2013 call to the State Department of Human Resources, during which he threatened to take a child hostage. A 2014 plea deal reduced the charge to a misdemeanor. Lawrence made the threat in order to get attention in a custody battle, his lawyers said.
Even then, authorities struggled to identify his ideology and exactly what threat he posed, Geneva County District Attorney Kirke Adams told the Dothan Eagle at the time.
During his call to the Department of Human Resources, Lawrence did not identify as a sovereign citizen, Adams said, but “he sure showed signs of being anti-government.”