WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) - A jury delivered a $23 million verdict for a South Florida man who suffered disabling spinal injuries when a policeman gunned him down, mistaking his cellphone for a weapon.
The verdict, handed down Feb. 4, holds Palm Beach County Sheriff's Sgt. Adams Lin liable for shooting and permanently disabling Dontrell Stephens while on traffic patrol in Sept. 2013.
Stephens, 20 years old at the time, was riding a bicycle in West Palm Beach when Lin chased him in a patrol car, burst out of the vehicle and opened fire.
Lin claimed he was trying to pull Stephens over for a traffic violation. He said he started shooting after he mistook Stephens' small black cellphone for a gun.
Lin's dashcam video shows that the routine stop instantly turned violent, with only 10 seconds elapsing between when Lin exited his patrol car and Stephens collapsed to the ground, riddled with bullets.
Spinal injuries from the shooting left Stephens paralyzed from the waist down.
Stephens filed his federal lawsuit against Lin and the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office in 2014, claiming that the "community policing" model in Stephens' largely African-American neighborhood had become "unyielding" and "aggressive."
Lin, a veteran of the U.S.-Afghanistan war, had taken to wearing military-style attire, a ballistic vest and other "combat-ready" gear while serving as a deputy in Palm Beach County, according to the lawsuit.
His approach was in line with sheriff's office policy, whereby "members of the community are seen, not as partners, but as subjects who must succumb to the officer's 'command presence,'" Stephens' counsel argued.
Since his return from Afghanistan, Lin did not undergo proper psychological screening despite being involved in an increasing number of incidents "involving the use of force and the harassment of citizens, all reflecting a more aggressive, forceful approach to policing," the lawsuit said.
"On six separate occasions since May 2011, the PBSO Early Intervention System flagged Lin for having five or more use-of-force incidents in the preceding twelve months. On two occasions since March 2013, the Early Intervention System flagged Lin for having five or more incident reviews in the preceding twenty four months," Stephens' complaint states.
The civil case went to trial Jan. 26, 2016.
Lin took the stand, again insisting that he thought Stephens was pulling a weapon on him when he approached in his patrol car. Lin reportedly claimed that if he were put in the situation again, he would take the same actions to protect himself from the perceived threat.
Stephens, confined to a wheelchair, removed his shirt to show the jury his scars from the bullet wounds. His attorneys from Searcy Denney argued that the location of one of the scars was clear evidence that his hands were raised when Lin opened fire.
After a week-long trial, the jury deliberated briefly and found that the deputy's use of force was unjustified.
The $23 million verdict in the Southern District of Florida was broken down to $6.4 million for medical expenses, $10.6 million for physical pain, suffering, disability and disfigurement, along with $6 million for emotional distress and related damages.
Due to the State of Florida's sovereign immunity cap, Stephens will likely be unable to collect the vast majority of the judgment unless it is approved and funded by the Florida legislature, a process that could take years.
The cap limits liability for individual claims against government agencies to $200,000.
Lin remains employed with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. He was apparently promoted to the rank of sergeant in 2015.
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