TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The battle over how much money Dontrell Stephens should get from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office took a twist Wednesday when several Florida lawmakers decided he deserved $4.5 million, instead of the $22.5 million awarded to him by a federal jury back in 2016.
Stephens was 19 years old when a PBSO deputy, Adams Lin, shot him multiple times. Stephens’ spine was severed by one of Lin’s bullets.
Stephens, now 26 years old and homeless, is confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His attorney, Jack Scarola, argues Stephens has more than $1.4 million in unpaid medical expenses and will need at least $5 million over the course of his lifetime to cover ongoing medical costs.
Stephens told Contact 5 Investigator Merris Badcock he is spending more and more time in emergency rooms for treatment of life-threatening bedsores because he cannot afford preventative care.
“They’re saying they don’t know if I’m really going to live to see this whole year,” Stephens said when asked how long his doctors are giving him under his current medical care. “I really feel like [PBSO] thinks I’m going to die soon,” he added.
“This is a life or death situation,” said Scarola. “The tragic part of all of this is the fact that the Sheriff’s Office recognizes that and they are playing a waiting game. They don’t have to pay money to a dead man.”
PBSO did not immediately respond to Contact 5’s request for comment, but a spokesperson previously called Scarola's claim “absurd” to other The Palm Beach Post.
Even though a jury awarded Stephens millions of dollars, an antiquated law known as sovereign immunity states that government agencies like PBSO only have to pay out $200,000.
To get the rest of the money, folks like Stephens have to file a bill (otherwise known as a claims bill) with the Florida legislature.
Just like a regular bill, claimants have to seek sponsors on both sides of the aisle. The bill must make it through multiple committee hearings, before being voted on by the Florida House and Senate.
The claims bill, like any other bill, could also die in committee. When that happens, claimants are forced to wait until the next legislative session to try and collect what they were awarded.
Additionally, the government agency (in this case, PBSO), could choose to fight against the claims bill.
Contact 5 found PBSO has hired at least four lobbyists to fight against Stephens’ claims bill: Jim Boxold, Nicholas Iarossi, Andrew Ketchel, and Christopher Schoonover with Capital City Consulting LLC. According to Florida lobbying disclosure information, Stephens is currently represented by one lobbyist: Alex Villalobos.
On Wednesday, minutes before the Senate Judiciary Committee was set to make their recommendations on Stephen’s claims bill, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Anitere Flores (R, District 39) filed what’s known as a ‘strike-all’.
The amendment states that PBSO is willing to give Stephens $4.5 million total: $3 million to go to his medical expenses, and $1.5 million for attorney and lobbying fees.
The amendment also states that all state liens resulting from unpaid medical expenses would be waived. Stephens would still have to pay federal liens.
"This is an issue of a young man who was riding a bicycle in the morning, in broad daylight. He was shot by a [deputy] in Palm Beach County. He was shot four times. He is now paralyzed by those shots," Flores told the committee. "He is now sentenced to the rest of his life in a wheelchair...No one here would want to be sentenced to a wheelchair for riding their bike in the morning.
The amended Senate bill still has to make its way through the Governmental Oversight & Accountability Committee before it gets heard on the floor.
In the House, Stephen’s similar claims bill is currently in House Judiciary Committee. If it clears that committee, it will head to the House floor.
While Stephens waits to find out his future, he says he dreams of a life where he doesn’t have to fight to survive, but one he can live to the fullest.
“I want to do actually a lot of things, like talk to people in wheelchairs and stuff. I want to motivate them to stay strong. I just want to get out there and move and get back to the regular me. I have not had that feeling in so long, but I know it’s still there.”