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Appeals court throws out $22.4M jury verdict against PBSO in Dontrell Stephens shooting case

Posted at 4:57 PM, Jan 10, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-11 06:26:45-05

A federal appeals court has thrown out a $22.4 million jury verdictagainst the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office in the 2013 shooting that left Dontrell Stephens paralyzed from the waist down.

According to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision, two out of three judges say "erroneous jury instructions" denied Deputy Adams Lin the ability to defend himself against claims that he used excessive force. 

A federal jury found, in 2016, that Lin used unreasonable, and excessive force, when he shot Stephens in 2013.

Dash-cam video shows Lin stopping Stephens for riding his bike on the wrong side of the road. What happened after that was at the center of the 2016 civil trial. 

When Stephens stepped off his bike, Lin instructed him to walk toward him while showing his hands. According to Lin, Stephens turned away while walking toward him. Lin said he thought he saw a dark object in Dontrell's hand. 

Stephens claims that on the video you can see him holding a cellphone to his ear, prior to the stop. Deputy Lin claims he never saw the cellphone.  

Stephens was shot four times at close range.

Lawyers for Stephens say the video clearly shows Lin shot Stephens as soon as he dismounted his bike, amounting to excessive force.

The appeals court has ordered a new trial in the case because some jury instructions did not accurately reflect the law.

Jack Scarola, the attorney for Dontrell Stephens, was in federal court on another case but issued this reaction: 

We are extremely disappointed in the majority opinion for all the reasons identified in the very persuasive and well-supported dissenting opinion that agreed with the trial court judge. We have every intention of continuing to pursue our rights for further appellate review and to exhaust all legal means to be sure Dontrell Stephens is fully compensated for the tragic injury he suffered. If that eventually means retrying this case before another jury, we are ready, willing and able to do that. We are confident that no jury will ever find that the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office was justified in shooting an unarmed bicyclist in the back.  

The sheriff's office issued this statement:

The Sheriff’s Office is pleased to learn of the ruling by the 11th District Court of Appeals.  Sgt. Adams Lin, who is a minority himself, and who had worked in the high crime neighborhood where the incident occurred for many years had never used deadly force prior to his unfortunate encounter with Mr. Stephens.  In fact Sgt. Lin had worked with many residents in the community including raising funds to send underprivileged African American youth to Washington D.C. on school field trips.  Sgt. Lin also fostered an African American child and he had many encounters with African Americans and other minority citizens prior to his encounter with Mr. Stephens.  Based upon Mr. Stephens’ actions, Sgt. Lin reasonably mistook a cell phone that Mr. Stephens held in his hand for a firearm, and fearing for his life, he shot Mr. Stephens.  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. He did so by rendering first aid to Mr. Stephens until EMS arrived.   
The narrow issue decided by the jury in this case was limited exclusively to whether Sgt. Lin intentionally used excessive force upon Mr. Stephens on September 13, 2013. The 11th District Court agreed with the Sheriff’s Office that the Jury instructions deprived Sgt. Lin of the opportunity to have his claim of qualified immunity considered by the district court and ordered a new trial.  The civil rights claim against the Sheriff’s Office was properly dismissed by the Court before trial.  The Court dismissed the civil rights claim against the Sheriff’s Office because there was no evidence to support a claim that the Sheriff’s Office’s customs policies, practices and procedures including investigations of officer involved shooting, could have caused the use of excessive deadly force in this case, and this was reaffirmed.  The jury was not asked to decide any claims against the Sheriff’s Office regarding its customs, policies, practices or procedures, including the investigation of officer involved shootings, and will not be asked to do so in the future, at a new trial.   
The only remaining claim against the Sheriff’s Office is a state law battery claim for excessive force which has a cap on damages in the amount of $200,000.00 absent passage of a claims bill by the state legislature.