Appeals court axes $22.4M award for man shot by Fla. deputy

Palm Beach County Sheriff's Sgt. Adams Lin shot Dontrell Stephens in September 2013 after seeing what he believed was a gun in the suspect's hand


By Lisa J. Huriash
Sun Sentinel

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — An appeals court has thrown out a $22.4 million jury award to a black man who was unarmed when he was shot and paralyzed by a Palm Beach County Sheriff's deputy.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial on claims by 24-year-old Dontrell Stephens. It was the largest jury verdict against the Sheriff’s Office in the history of the agency, attorneys said.

Palm Beach County Sheriff's Sgt. Adams Lin shot Stephens in September 2013, after stopping Stephens for riding his bicycle erratically in traffic.

In their ruling released Wednesday, two of the three appeals judges agreed that jury instructions in the 2016 civil trial were erroneous.

The court ruled the flawed jury instruction deprived Lin of the opportunity to have one of his defenses — qualified immunity — properly considered by the judge and jury. Qualified immunity generally shields government officials, including police officers, from liability for civil damages if they made a reasonable mistake.

Stephens’ attorney, Jack Scarola, said he was “extremely disappointed” by the decision.

“We have every intention of continuing to pursue our rights … to exhaust all legal means to be sure Dontrell Stephens is fully compensated for the tragic injury he suffered,” Scarola said. “If that eventually means retrying this case before another jury, we are ready, willing and able to do that.

“We are confident that no jury will ever find that the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office was justified in shooting this unarmed bicyclist in the back.”

Stephens was awarded $23.1 million in February 2016, including $10.6 million for pain and suffering and $6.7 million for emotional distress. His attorneys told the jury he suffers from depression, pain and bed sores. After the jury verdict, attorneys agreed to reduce the amount to $22.4 million. The judgment, which was not paid, has also been accumulating interest since 2016, Scarola said Wednesday.

A dashboard camera video from the Sept. 13, 2013, shooting shows Stephens backing away from Lin when he fired. Stephens held a cellphone but no weapon.

Lin testified he saw a dark object in Stephens' hand that he thought was a gun, putting him in fear for his life.

Race was an issue in the case, though Lin testified during the investigation that he had not racially profiled Stephens. He said he was suspicious of Stephens and did not recognize him from the neighborhood.

"[Lin] never shot at any black man before, he never shot at any white man before. This is the only time this ever happened to him," Summer Barranco, one of the attorneys for the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, told jurors during the trial.

Sheriff’s officials said they were pleased with the appeals court ruling.

Lin, who is Asian-American, is “a minority himself,” officials said in a written statement, and “had worked in the high crime neighborhood where the incident occurred for many years [but] had never used deadly force prior to his unfortunate encounter with Mr. Stephens.”

The statement also said: “Sgt. Lin then saved Mr. Stephens’ life due to the fact that he had extensive medical training as a result of serving his country as a member of the U.S. Army while on deployment in Afghanistan in 2008. He did so by rendering first aid to Mr. Stephens until EMS arrived.”

Though the majority of the judges sided with the Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson wrote a strong dissent. He said he would have upheld the jury’s verdict and would have let Stephens’ lawyers go forward with their claim that Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and the Sheriff’s Office should also be held liable for the shooting.

“Stephens presented substantial evidence of a custom within the Sheriff’s Office. Specifically, the evidence of a custom of tolerating excessive force consists of (1) a number of police shootings that resulted in financial settlements but no officer discipline,(2) statements by Sheriff Bradshaw in the media before investigations of the officer shootings had been completed, and (3) a number of concerning issues in the investigation of Stephens’ shooting. The practices of the Sheriff’s Office before the Stephens shooting suggest the existence of a custom,” Judge Wilson wrote.

The trial judge had rejected that argument before the trial began.

During the trial in federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Stephens showed the jury where the first of four bullets hit him in his inner right arm.

His attorneys said that proved Stephens' hands were in the air when he was shot by Lin.

Stephens testified he had smoked half a joint of marijuana that September morning and then rode his bicycle to buy a Mistic fruit drink at the Magic Mart convenience store west of West Palm Beach.

The store was out of his drink, so he left empty-handed. On his way home, he got a cellphone call from a friend and changed his route to go play video games.

When he heard sirens, he "looked back and got off my bike. I let the bike slam down on the floor. I went toward him and asked what I was being stopped for. He responded 'put your hands up.' As soon as I put my hands up he started shooting," Stephens testified.

Lin said he pulled Stephens over for "dodging traffic" and forcing a truck to slow to let him pass. Lin testified in a deposition that he intended to give the then-20-year-old a traffic citation. Within four seconds, he shot Stephens four times.

Lin, who was the agency's Community Policing Deputy of the Year for 2010-11, said he mistook Stephens’ flip-style cellphone for a gun. he said he was afraid for his life, and without any other deputies on the scene, he fired.

But Stephens' attorneys have argued that he was no threat and say the deputy's dash-cam video and doctor testimony shows Stephens was also shot in the back.

Once on the ground, Stephens said Lin ordered him to turn over. "I told him I couldn't," Stephens said.

The Sheriff’s Office and the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office cleared Lin of any criminal wrongdoing. He has since been promoted to sergeant.

©2018 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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