Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Sgt. Adams Lin watched helplessly on Saturday as federal marshals seized his personal belongings — including his car, clothes, television and furniture — to help pay the expenses of a 23-year-old West Palm Beach man he shot, paralyzing him for life.
Attorney Jack Scarola, who won a $22.4 million jury verdict for Stephens last year, said he got permission from a federal magistrate to take the unusual step of seizing Lin’s property to pay off the judgment that is against both the deputy and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
“It doesn’t give me any joy to do this,” he said. “This was not a happy morning spent on Saturday. It was something we did because we felt an obligation to protect my client’s interest. My client remains destitute.”
The move outraged John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association. In 37 years in law enforcement, he said he’s never heard of an officer’s belongings being taken to be sold on the auction block.
“It makes us have to think every time when we go out to do our job: Are we going to be civilly liable? Do we have to rent all of our property?” he said. “This is a bad, bad precedent.”
Scarola said Sheriff Ric Bradshaw could have spared Lin the pain and embarrassment of watching his car loaded on a flatbed truck and his furniture and clothes carted away in a moving van. He could have paid Stephens the $200,000 he will be legally obligated to pay if the verdict is upheld on appeal.
“The sheriff was offered the opportunity to protect his employee and avoid the seizure,” Scarola said. “He declined not to do it.”
Attorney Val Rodriguez, who is not connected to the case but has filed similar cases against the sheriff’s office, said it appears attorneys representing Lin and Bradshaw could have offered to post a bond while the case is being appealed. The bond, typically for a percentage of the amount awarded, would have protected Lin’s belonging from seizure, he said.
Because such a request wasn’t filed with U.S. Magistrate Barry Seltzer, he had no choice but to approve Scarola’s request, Rodriguez said. Attorneys representing Lin and Bradshaw could ask Seltzer to stop Lin’s property from being sold at public auction, but it may be too late, he said.
Scarola said there is another option. Before Lin’s goods are sold, he said Bradshaw could agree to pay Stephens the $200,000.
Bradshaw didn’t respond to a request from The Palm Beach Post for comment. Attorney Steven Ellison, who represents Lin, declined comment as did attorney Summer Barranco, who represents the sheriff’s office and Lin along with attorney Richard Giuffreda.
Scarola readily admitted he’s playing “hardball” with Bradshaw. At auction, Lin’s used furniture, golf clubs, fishing rods and computer, won’t fetch much money. “If I can collect $100 for Dontrell Stephens, I’ll collect $100 for Dontrell Stephens, ” he said.
Scarola had already gone to court in an unsuccessful attempt to seize Lin’s wages for Stephens. Seltzer denied the request because Lin, who is divorced, provides more than 50 percent of the support for his young daughter, which exempts his salary from garnishment.
However, Scarola said, the law clearly allows him to ask that Lin’s personal property be seized. He said he got the approval in a private meeting with a federal magistrate. The proceedings, by law, are secret so property authorized for seizure doesn’t disappear before it can be seized.
“It was very obvious that it came not just as a surprise but as a great shock to him,” Scarola said.
Some officers have suggested holding a fundraiser for Lin, but Kazanjian said they fear any money contributed to Lin would be seized. Scarola said there is a provision in the law that would allow Lin to keep $4,000 worth of his property.
Stephens, who grew up in poverty and never finished high school, was awarded $22.4 million by a federal jury, which found that Lin used excessive force in 2013 when he shot Stephens minutes after stopping him for riding his bicycle erratically in morning rush-hour traffic on Haverhill Road, west of West Palm Beach. The sheriff’s office is also responsible for the verdict.
In October, Stephens was arrested on charges of selling marijuana, cocaine and heroin to a confidential informant. He was released from the Palm Beach County Jail to Neulife Rehabilitation in Mount Dora, where he remains.
Even if the multi-million-dollar verdict is upheld, the most the sheriff’s office could be forced to pay Stephens is $200,000. Under Florida law, that is the most governments can be forced to pay for wrongdoing. To get more, Scarola would have to persuade the state legislature to pass a claims bill, lifting the cap.
Scarola said Bradshaw should pay Stephens the first installment. “The sheriff’s office put Dontrell Stephens in a wheelchair for life and they know the desperate circumstances he is in,” he said. “There is no legal justification for refusing that first $200,000. None.”
Staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this story.