Appeals court tosses $22.4 million verdict against PBSO in shooting

A federal appeals court on Wednesday threw out a $22.4 million verdict against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office — the largest in the agency’s history — in connection with a 2013 shooting that left a 24-year-old West Palm Beach man paralyzed from the waist down.

In a split decision, a widely divided 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial on claims by Dontrell Stephens that sheriff’s Deputy Adams Lin used excessive force when he shot the unarmed Stephens four times. The shooting, captured on Lin’s dashboard video camera, occurred seconds after the deputy stopped Stephens for riding his bicycle erratically on Haverhill Road, south of Okeechobee Boulevard.

Two of the three judges on the panel ruled that instructions U.S. Magistrate Barry Seltzer gave jurors in the 2016 trial in Fort Lauderdale were flawed. It was up to Seltzer — not the jury — to decide whether Lin was within his rights as a police officer to shoot Stephens if he reasonably believed his life was in danger, the appeals court ruled. Instead, Seltzer improperly allowed the jury to make the decision of whether Lin was entitled to what is known as qualified immunity.

“The question of what circumstances existed at the time of the encounter is a question of fact for the jury — but the question of whether the officer’s perceptions and attendant actions were objectively reasonable under those circumstances is a question of law for the court,” Judges Gerald Tjoflat and Eduardo Robreno wrote, tossing out the verdict.

Breaking with his colleagues, Judge Charles Wilson penned a withering 16-page dissent. Seltzer’s jury instructions followed rules established by the U.S. Supreme Court, he wrote. If the jury believed Stephens posed a threat to Lin, they would not have found the officer used excessive force, he wrote. Further, he said, Seltzer used the jury’s findings to determine that Lin violated Stephens’ constitutional rights.

“I see no reversible error,” Wilson wrote.

Not only would he have upheld the jury verdict, Wilson said he would have allowed a jury to decide whether Sheriff Ric Bradshaw was responsible for the shooting by creating an atmosphere that stoked deputies’ appetites to fire their weapons.

Noting that Bradshaw settled 16 excessive force lawsuits between 2009 and 2013, issued press statements backing deputies before investigations were complete and promoted Lin to sergeant after the shooting, Wilson said there was ample evidence that Bradshaw had a de facto policy allowing deputies to use deadly force.

“The unconstitutionality of Stephens’ shooting alone could arguably be enough to find a custom of tolerating excessive force,” Wilson wrote.

Praising Wilson’s dissent, Stephens’ attorney Jack Scarola vowed to appeal. He said he would ask all 18 members of the Atlanta-based court to overturn the panel’s decision. If unsuccessful, he said he would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If those efforts fail, he said he is “ready, willing and able” to retry the case. “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,” Scarola said. The video showed a bullet struck Stephens as he was running away, severing his spine.

In a statement, the sheriff’s office commended the court’s decision and lauded Lin. While there were no allegations that the shooting was racially motivated, the sheriff’s office statement pointed out that Lin, who is of Asian descent, “is a minority himself.” Further, it said, he has “fostered an African-American child.”

Lin “reasonably” believed a cellphone Stephens was holding was a gun, it continued. Lin fired in self defense, it 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,” the agency said.

John Kazanjian, president of the Police Benevolent Association of Palm Beach County, said the appeals court made the right call. “The Supreme Court has ruled that a police officer can’t be second-guessed if he believes his life is threatened,” he said. “If they get another trial, it will go the way we intended it to go with the sheriff and Adams Lin not being forced to pay damages.”

Lin, he said, has been through a lot. In an unusual move, Scarola had Lin’s household goods seized to be sold at auction to begin paying off the judgment. Seltzer later ordered Lin’s car, TV, clothes, golf clubs and other items to be returned, saying Lin proved the seizure would leave him destitute.

Scarola said he took the rare action because Stephens desperately needed the money. He was living on the streets while suffering horrific health problems common to paraplegics. In October 2016, he was arrested for selling a small amount of cocaine, marijuana and cough syrup to an undercover sheriff’s deputy. His attorney in that case, Ian Goldstein, said Stephens was targeted because of the federal jury verdict.

After his arrest on the drug charges, Stephens was released to a rehab center in Mount Dora that specializes in caring for people with spinal injuries. At Scarola and Goldstein’s urging, community members later rallied to provide money for his housing. However, Scarola has said, Stephens’ situation is desperate.

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