Palm Beach County, FL – An appeals court overturned a $22.4 million verdict against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office (PBCSO) on Jan. 10, after the judges concluded that jurors were instructed to make decisions that should have been determined by the presiding judge.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals also ordered a new trial for PBCSO Sergeant Adams Lin.
Sgt. Lin was accused of using excessive force when he shot 24-year-old Dontrell Stephens four times, after he stopped him for riding his bicycle erratically in September of 2013, the Palm Beach Post reported.
The State Attorney’s Office determined that the shooting was legally justified.
Stephens’ attorney viciously went after Sgt. Lin’s property on Jan. 7, 2017, in an effort to collect on the $22.4 million judgement, and seized the sergeant’s car, clothing, television, furniture, and pets, in violation of Florida law.
A judge later ordered that the property be returned to Sgt. Lin.
In a two-to-one ruling, the appeals court determined that U.S. Magistrate Barry Seltzer was responsible for determining whether or not Sgt. Lin was entitled to qualified immunity during the 2016 civil trial.
More specifically, Seltzer was the only one with authority to determine if the sergeant acted reasonably if he believed Stephens was threatening his life.
Qualified immunity exists to help protect public servants from being liable for civil damages if their actions are considered reasonable, the Sun Sentinel reported.
Instead, Seltzer erroneously gave that decision-making power to the jurors, the appeals court concluded.
“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 explained in the ruling, according to the Palm Beach Post.
The improper jury instruction deprived Sgt. Lin of the opportunity to have his qualified immunity defense considered, the court said, according to the Sun Sentinel.
The 2013 shooting occurred after Sgt. Lin observed Stephens weaving his bike in and out of heavy traffic.
During the civil trial, Sgt. Lin testified that, based on his training and experience with other suspects who exhibited the same behaviors, he believed Stephens’ erratic behavior signaled that he was going to flee.
Sgt. Lin said that he stopped Stephens, kept one hand on his Taser, and prepared for a possible foot pursuit.
Instead, Stephens dropped his hands, and began fumbling with something in his back pocket.
Sgt. Lin testified that he believed Stephens was reaching for a gun.
In fear for his life, and with no backup nearby, Sgt. Lin shot Stephens. He further testified that, based on his training and experience, he would do the same thing again if presented with the same set of circumstances.
Sgt. Lin said that he was not responsible for what happened to Stephens.
When asked during the trial who was responsible for the shooting, Sgt. Lin replied, “Mr. Stephens’ actions.”
Race was also an issue in the civil trial, the Sun Sentinel reported.
According to the Palm Beach Post, the PBCSO vehemently denied such allegations on Sgt. Lin’s behalf, and noted that the sergeant “is a minority himself,” who has also “fostered an African-American child.”
The sheriff’s office further argued that Sgt. Lin “reasonably” believed that Stephens’ cell phone was a gun, and that he shot Stephens in self-defense, The Palm Beach Post reported.
“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,” PBSCO said.
The president of the Police Benevolent Association of Palm Beach County, John Kazanjian, agreed with the appeals court’s decision.
“The Supreme Court has ruled that a police officer can’t be second-guessed if he believes his life is threatened,” Kazanjian told the Palm Beach Post. “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.”
But in a 16-page dissent, Judge Charles Wilson outlined his arguments for upholding the original $22.4 million award. Wilson not only argued that he believed Sgt. Lin violated Stephens’ constitutional rights, he also fired off allegations against PBCSO Sheriff Ric Bradshaw.
Wilson wrote that he would have upheld the jury’s findings, and that he would have also permitted the jury to decide whether or not Sheriff Bradshaw was responsible for Stephens’ injuries by creating a work environment that Wilson believed encouraged deputies to fire their weapons, the Palm Beach Post reported.
“The unconstitutionality of Stephens’ shooting alone could arguably be enough to find a custom of tolerating excessive force,” Wilson wrote in his dissent, according to the Palm Beach Post.
Stephens’ attorney, Jack Scarola, said they planned to pursue the civil matter further, and said he was “extremely disappointed” by the appeals court’s decision, the Sun Sentinel reported.
“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.”
Stephens has not stayed out of trouble since being shot, according to the Palm Beach Post.
In October of 2016, Stephens was arrested for selling cocaine, marijuana, and cough syrup to an undercover deputy.
His defense attorney, Ian Goldstein, said Stephens was targeted because of $22.4 million jury award.