Fla. rulings protect sheriff but let wounded suspects sue deputies

The rulings are nearly identical to ones that have been made in other recent excessive force cases

By Jane Musgrave
The Palm Beach Post

PAML BEACH, Fla. — In decisions that are becoming all too familiar to those who have lost loved ones to police shootings, a federal trial judge and a federal appeals court this week agreed two Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies could be sued for killing two men in separate incidents.

But while clearing the way for the families of Seth Adams and Victor Arango to seek millions in damages from deputies who fatally shot their loved ones, the federal judges shielded Sheriff Ric Bradshaw from allegations that he created the perfect storm for the shootings by creating an atmosphere that spurred deputies to reach for their weapons.

"From our point of view, the court has dismissed the most significant claims against the Sheriff's Office," said attorney Richard Giuffreda, who represents the agency.

The rulings are nearly identical to ones that have been made in other recent excessive force cases against the Sheriff's Office, including one that will go to trial this month. In each case, the court paved the way for the families or, in some cases, the survivors to pursue individual deputies for multi-million-dollar judgments, Giuffreda said. But the judges have protected the Sheriff's Office, and ultimately taxpayers, from what could have been budget-shattering verdicts, he said.

Legal watchers said they are gratified that judges are letting victims of deputies' gunfire try to persuade juries that there was no justification for the shootings. But, some said, blaming rogue Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies for shootings that have left 46 dead and 40 injured in the last 15 years misses the point.

"There is a pattern of citizens dying unnecessarily because deputies think they're armed," said attorney Val Rodriguez, who has handled several excessive force cases against the department. "It's scary."

Until federal judges recognize that shooting first and asking questions later has become the "custom, policy and practice" of the Sheriff's Office and allows people to seek millions from it for violating people's civil rights, he said he worries that bodies will continue to pile up.

That federal judges questioned the actions of two deputies this week and paved the way for another trial to start on Jan. 25 is telling, Rodriguez said. "Three cases? What does that tell you? "It tells you there was a custom, policy and practice," he said, repeating the legal mantra for what people must show before being allowed to sue a law enforcement department for violating someone's constitutional rights.

The same decision that allows people to sue deputies, but not the sheriff, has been made in several other pending cases, including one involving the 2012 fatal shooting of a 18-year-old autistic youth and another over gunshot injuries suffered by a 60-year old mentally ill man in 2007.

Attorney Wallace McCall, who represents Adams family, said he was pleased U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hurley ruled that he could sue sheriff's Sgt. Michael Custer for fatally shooting the unarmed 24-year-old outside the family's Loxahatchee Groves garden shop in 2012. "He gets it," McCall said. "He understands there's conflicting evidence."

Likewise, attorneys Matthew Levy and Kenneth Metnick applauded the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that allows them to pursue sheriff's Deputy Michael Suszczynski for fatally shooting Arango outside a now-defunct suburban Boynton Beach bar in 2012. In its ruling, the Atlanta-based appellate court noted that some witnesses said Suszczynski shot Arango "execution-style" after the 26-year-old father had been disarmed and was lying on the ground.

But, like Rodriguez, McCall said it is unfortunate that the courts have dismissed allegations that Bradshaw's policies have fueled the shootings. "It's got to do with training issues. It's got to do with disciplinary issues," he said. "Officers start out with the presumption that they did nothing wrong and the Sheriff's Office has their back."

But, he said, the standard that courts have established to prove the sheriff is responsible for the shootings is a high one. In his 46-page ruling, Hurley said McCall "must demonstrate that the deputies' misconduct in using excessive force was so persistent and widespread in the department as to practically have the force of an official policy." McCall, Hurley ruled, failed to do so.

Attorney Jack Scarola, who represents a 22-year-old who was paralyzed after sheriff's Sgt. Adam Lin shot him in 2013, said the standard is ridiculously high. "Unless the sheriff stands up and says, 'I'm telling my deputies to shoot on sight and we're not concerned if there's any bodily injuries,' you can't meet it," he said.

However, he said, he's not giving up hope. If, after this month's trial, the jury orders Lin to pay millions in damages to Dontrell Stephens, Scarola said he plans to ask the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a trial court ruling that prohibited him from pursuing Bradshaw for having a defacto policy that encourages the use of deadly force. By law, he can't appeal the decision until after the trial is over.

Further, he said, if he or any other attorney wins a multi-million-dollar verdict against a deputy, he questions whether Bradshaw will force deputies to pay it. "It would have a significant impact on the morale of the department if the sheriff hung Sgt. Lin out to dry," he said.

Giuffreda declined comment on Scarola's speculation.

Copyright 2016 The Palm Beach Post

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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