Dontrell Stephens was 20 years old when a Palm Beach County deputy shot him four times, paralyzing him for life. The Florida cop had pulled Stephens over for a bicycle infraction one morning in September 2013, then blasted him seconds later. He said he mistook the unarmed black man’s cellphone for a gun and feared for his life.
But cops would came back for Stephens years later. Months after he won a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the sheriff’s department, Stephens was cuffed for selling drugs to undercover cops from his wheelchair. The agency said he sold marijuana, cocaine and a cough syrup that he claimed was mixed with codeine.
The department appeared to gloat about Stephens’ October 2016 arrest on social media, posting his mugshot with the words, “If you sell drugs near a DAY CARE CENTER you are going to get #BUSTED.” (The facility in question was a YMCA that happened to offer child-care services.)
Such announcements were rare for the office, and this one didn’t mention a federal jury’s decision last February to award Stephens more than $22 million for the officer’s violation of his civil rights. When asked about the online bulletin, a sheriff’s spokeswoman told the Palm Beach Post, “Stephens broke the law on more than one occasion. He was arrested on those charges.”
The post attracted criticism from Stephens’ attorneys, as well as citizens who saw Stephens’ arrest as payback. “What better way to avoid paying $23 million dollars than to paint the victim as a criminal, lock him up and throw away the key,” one woman wrote on Facebook. Another commenter added, “If PBSO paid their judgment to the victim he wouldn’t need to sell drugs. I’m guessing a guy confined to a wheelchair doesn’t have many job offers.”
Stephens’ legal team said the bust was no coincidence. “He was absolutely targeted. There’s no question,” Ian Goldstein, Stephens’ defense attorney, told The Daily Beast.
Teri Barbera, the spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said the agency’s narcotics division encountered Stephens after receiving complaints about someone selling drugs in the area early last year. When deputies investigated the complaints further, they determined Stephens was their suspect.
“It’s a crime if you do it one time,” Barbera told The Daily Beast of Stephens’ drug sales. “He did it three times before he got arrested.”
John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association, denied cops unfairly targeted the man in the wheelchair. When asked if Stephens was in authorities’ crosshairs over the lawsuit, Kazanjian said, “Absolutely not.”
“He was a drug dealer before the incident. He was a drug dealer after [the shooting],” Kazanjian told The Daily Beast. “He hasn’t changed his profession.”
Stephens, who was undergoing medical treatment at a rehab facility three hours north of Palm Beach, was transported back to Palm Beach County to accept a plea deal on Monday. He was released that night in order to serve his nine-month jail sentence under house arrest, through a program with the sheriff’s office, Goldstein said.
Goldstein told The Daily Beast that Stephens pleaded guilty to the sale of cocaine, marijuana and a substance in lieu of a controlled substance for peddling over-the-counter cough syrup. He was also sentenced to two years of probation.
Yet his troubles are far from over.
As a result of the shooting, Stephens, who has an eighth-grade education and a conviction for selling cocaine at age 18, is paralyzed from the waist down. He is homeless, and his only source of income is a social security check, Jack Scarola, Stephens’ civil attorney, told The Daily Beast.
One year after Fort Lauderdale jurors ruled in his favor, Stephens says he hasn’t received any money, let alone an apology, from police.
The jury awarded him $23.1 million, and that figure was later reduced to $22.4 million after subtracting medical bills already paid. But in order to receive a payout, Stephens needs the blessing of the Florida state legislature, which must approve any government-agency damages above the state’s cap of $200,000.
“He has not collected a penny of that judgment,” Scarola said. “He remains in very desperate financial circumstances right now. It’s important to appreciate the distinction of winning a judgment and actually collecting any money.”
Scarola said the sheriff’s office was responsible for putting Stephens in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, after his only alleged violation was a bicycle infraction. “It seems to me that regardless of whether a legal obligation exists to pay that judgment, there is a very compelling moral basis to give this young man the money he needs to survive,” Scarola added.
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and Deputy Adams Lin are appealing the $22.4-million judgment, and their attorneys will argue the case later this month.
“By setting him up [with the drug arrest], they did everything in their power to try to prevent him from getting a claims bill and collecting the money that’s owed to him,” Goldstein, the defense attorney, said. “It’s a purely political process, and the legislature is free to grant or deny a bill for any reason or no reason.”
Stephens faces an uphill battle. His attorneys must find sponsors for a claims bill, which can only proceed after the jury verdict is affirmed on appeal, Scarola told The Daily Beast. Scarola expects the appellate court to issue an opinion anywhere from weeks to six months after oral arguments.
Then come deadlines to shepherd the bill through the legislature and to secure votes, which will require a significant lobbying effort. “We knew about the problems that exist getting paid in a claims bills case,” Scarola said. “We know how long the road can be, but we also know that Dontrell was extremely deserving of every effort we could make to see that justice was done in his case.
“It could indeed take years,” he added. “And unfortunately, Dontrell’s survival hangs in the balance.”
It’s not the first time the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office (PBSO) has come under fire for shooting an unarmed citizen.
Stephens’ civil lawsuit is one of many filed in recent years against the PBSO, which in 2016 spent more than $4 million alone on settlements in wrongful death and excessive force cases. One $1.7-million payout — the largest ever paid by the agency — went to the family of Michael Camberdella, an 18-year-old with autism and bipolar disorder who was shot dead by police.
The massive settlements eclipse those of previous years. According to the Palm Beach Post, PBSO spent only $1.7 million on wrongful death and excessive force cases from 2000 to 2015, despite deputies firing their weapons at 114 people and killing 45 during that period.
These rising costs mirror a national surge in police misconduct payouts, which rose 48 percent from $168.3 million in 2010 to $248.7 million in 2015 across America’s largest cities, the Wall Street Journal reported.
In Camberdella’s case, the teen’s mother called police for help after he stopped taking his medication. A Palm Beach deputy arrived on the scene and, one minute later, shot Camberdella 11 times on the family’s lawn before handcuffing his lifeless body, a civil complaint alleges. (The sheriff’s office denied the allegations before the case was settled.)
The next largest settlement, $562,500, was paid out for the death of 28-year-old Matthew Pollow, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and had dialed 911 for help during a mental health episode. Cops say a deputy fatally shot Pollow after he lunged at the officer with a screwdriver; Pollow’s family said in court filings that he was unarmed.
The sheriff’s department also paid $450,000 to Jeremy Hutton, a 17-year-old with Down Syndrome who had taken his mother’s minivan for a drive. A deputy fired three bullets into Hutton, hitting his head, shoulder and hand. The teen, whose lawyers said had the mental capacity of a 3- to 6-year-old, survived. (In court documents, the sheriff’s office denied liability.)
In all three cases, the state attorney’s office cleared these deputies of criminal wrongdoing.
Deputy Adams Lin, too, was cleared of wrongdoing in the Stephens case.
After that shooting, life would take drastically different paths for the two men involved. Stephens was reduced to lying on an inflatable mattress on a cousin’s floor and suffering from bedsores, anger and depression as his medical bills ballooned to $1.5 million. One bullet is still lodged in Stephens’ right arm.
Deputy Lin, the divorced father of a young daughter, was promoted to sergeant by Sheriff Ric Bradshaw. The cop, who served a tour in Afghanistan before the tragic encounter with Stephens, now teaches field training to new recruits.
His “military-style” police uniform with fatigues, ballistic vest and bandoliers, and his experience as a U.S. Army Reservist, were all scrutinized in Stephens’ civil complaint and later at trial. (Stephens’ lawsuit took aim at the sheriff’s “community policing” units, which allegedly had shifted from bike-riding officers interacting with the public, to cops policing communities as an “aggressive, ‘zero tolerance,’” force.)
In a video deposition, Lin said he dressed to earn residents’ respect, the Palm Beach Post reported. “One of the most important factors in law enforcement is your presence,” the deputy testified. “I believe and I was told you need that presence of looking professional but, at the same time, should have a command presence.”
Lin told the jury he was dedicated to the high-crime neighborhood where Stephens was shot, the Sun Sentinel reported. He took children to ballgames and assisted cleanup projects in the area. The cop also wanted to be ready for active shooter scenarios that have plagued the United States in recent years.
“As we say in the Army, 'We pray for peace, but we train for war,” Lin testified.
One life changed in an instant
The morning he was shot, Dontrell Stephens biked to a convenience store near West Palm Beach to buy his favorite soft drink.
It was 8:20 a.m., and the Magic Mart was out of Stephens’ prized Mistic juice, so he started pedalling home. Stephens and his brothers had bounced from foster care to shelters to the homes of friends and relatives all their lives. And on that day, Stephens happened to be jobless and living with a friend’s mother and her three other kids.
Stephens would later testify that he smoked half a joint with his buddy sometime between 7 and 8 a.m., before he headed out for the day.
As he rode through traffic, Stephens caught the eye of Lin, then a 36-year-old Palm Beach sheriff’s deputy and nine-year veteran of the force, who was on alert that morning for reckless drivers in a school zone. Lin claimed that Stephens forced a truck to slow down to let him pass. The community policing officer told jurors that he decided to stop Stephens, who has long dreadlocks, not only to issue a citation, but also because he was unfamiliar to him.
Moments before the traffic stop, Stephens took a phone call from a friend named “Bluntbo” and they made plans to play video games. The cyclist denied obstructing traffic or forcing trucks to slow down to avoid hitting him, court transcripts show.
As he hung up his flip phone, Stephens heard sirens behind him. Deputy Lin activated the blue lights of his squad car, and Stephens rode up a ways before hopping off his bike and onto a lawn. Dashcam footage shows Stephens walking around a parked sedan with a cellphone in his right hand. He disappears from view as he encounters Lin, who is also off camera.
Stephen testified that Lin was already pointing his gun at him and that he “was terrified and scared for my life.” As he faced the cop, Stephens still had his phone in his right hand. The conversation between the men was not audible in the footage.
“I got off the bike and I went towards him and I asked him what I’m being stopped for. And he didn’t respond,” Stephens testified at trial in February 2016. “He responded to put my hands up. And that’s when I first responded to him and I put my hands up. And as soon as I put my hands up, he started shooting.”
The dashcam shows Stephens falling to the ground, felled by four rapid gunshots within four seconds of meeting Lin. “Roll over on your stomach,” the deputy commands. But Stephens couldn’t move. One gunshot severed his spine and paralyzed him for life.
In court, Lin’s version of events clashed with Stephen’s account.
The deputy testified that he stopped Stephens after he caused a motorist to slow down, and because, as a community cop, Lin didn’t recognize Stephens from the neighborhood. His suspicions grew when he activated his police siren and Stephens failed to immediately stop.
When Stephens stopped in a patch of grass, the door to Lin’s patrol car was already open, and the cop was ready for a foot chase. “My mind is, I’m going to try to corner him … to catch him,” Lin testified. “I’m looking beyond him, to think about where he’s going next.”
Lin’s mind darted steps ahead. The deputy, according to his own testimony, ran behind the closest car, a Mazda, even before Stephens dropped his handlebars. “To be honest, I believed he was surprised by how fast I was able to round the corner [of the Mazda],” Lin told the jury.
Lin became uneasy when Stephens walked between the parked Mazda and another vehicle, and he ordered Stephens to stop and put his hands up. According to Lin, Stephens complied at first and raised his hands to his waist.
“He looked right through me … like I wasn’t even there,” Lin testified.
Stephens allegedly reached his left hand behind his back. When his hand went back up, he gripped a dark object, Lin said. The cop believed the object was a gun. “First thought going through my mind is, Oh shit. I’m dead. I’m behind the eight ball,” Lin testified, according to the Post. “I thought about, obviously, am I going home? Am I going to see my kid?”
He grabbed his handgun and, from 10 feet away, fired four bullets. “We shoot until the threat is gone,” Lin testified, according to the Sun Sentinel. “When the threat is no longer a threat.”
With Stephens handcuffed, Lin began searching for a weapon. He would only find the man’s broken flip phone, now resting on his stomach. A dashcam video showed that when backup arrived, another deputy assured Lin, “Relax. Hey, look at me. It sucks. You felt the need to do what you had to do, OK?”
Lin said he tried to save Stephens’ life by grabbing a medical pack from his trunk and administering an “Israeli bandage” on Stephens’ wounds. He called EMS and told them to hurry up, all while he and a fellow cop were “trying to do our best job to comfort him.”
“I shot this guy,” Lin testified. “I thought he was trying to kill me.”
Stephens’ attorneys dug into Lin’s military experience, saying he hadn’t recovered from the horrors of his 10 months in Kandahar and Bagram, Afghanistan. They argued Lin was the only deputy out of 50 on community patrol who “dressed for war,” in fatigues, boots, criss-crossing bandoliers of ammo, and a flak jacket.
“There was no objective basis for Adams Lin to arm and equip himself this way to promote peaceful conduct in that neighborhood,” Scarola told the jury.
In Stephens’ civil complaint, Scarola described how Lin had guarded prisoners, including Taliban fighters, while also witnessing the coffins of fellow soldiers pass through his air base. Despite this experience, the sheriff’s office did not conduct psychological evaluations of Lin as part of his return to work in 2008, and did nothing to determine whether he suffered from PTSD, court papers allege. In response, the sheriff’s office denied conducting evaluations for potential PTSD symptoms, records show.
The lawsuit also claimed Lin’s internal affairs file contained “numerous” citizen complaints and use of force reports, including one incident where Lin allegedly conducted an illegal “stop and frisk” on a woman after claiming she blocked traffic on a sidewalk. In another incident, Lin allegedly used the N-word while arresting a black man. The sheriff’s office denied these allegations, as well.
In a separate episode, the cop fired his Taser at a suspect less than a second after ordering him to drop a rock. In a written report, Lin claimed he demanded the man drop the object multiple times, but a Taser-mounted camera revealed he did so only once. The sheriff denied these allegations “as phrased,” court documents show. (When reached by The Daily Beast, an attorney for the sheriff’s office declined to comment.)
Meanwhile, Lin’s legal team zeroed in on Stephens’ previous cocaine conviction and his use of marijuana that morning. In court, Stephens said he was a “little bit, not really” high and had a plastic baggie of weed in his shoe when Lin stopped him — a fact that Lin’s attorneys suggested was reason to flee the cop. (Stephens denied ever fleeing the officer.)
And Stephens displayed strange behavior by failing to stop when Lin flashed his lights and siren, said the sheriff’s attorney, Summer Barranco. She asked Stephens why he biked to a convenience store so far away when many other shops were near his residence. Stephens didn’t have an answer.
Barranco warned jurors not to compare the Stephens case with other high-profile shootings of unarmed black men in America. “He didn’t shoot this man because he was a young African-American man,” Barranco said, before noting Lin is Asian-American and had denied racially profiling his suspect.
Deputy Lin made a mistake, Barranco told jurors, but “he shot Mr. Stephens in a split second when he reasonably believed he faced a deadly threat … and he wanted to go home to his family that night.”
Named Community Policing Deputy of the Year in 2010, Lin told the jury that he’d shoot Stephens again if the circumstances remained the same. “If I was put in the same situation again ... I would make the same exact choice again ... if I saw a black object coming at me like a gun,” he said.
Darryl Lewis, an attorney for Stephens, appeared to capitalize on Lin’s phrase during closing arguments. “I did the worst wrong, short of killing him, and I would do it again,” Lewis said, parroting Lin’s statements.
“Everyone knows he would do it again,” Lewis said. “Now is the time for a jury to rise up and say ‘No, you won’t.’”
After an eight-day trial, and just under four hours of deliberation, a jury of six women and two men ruled that Lin violated Stephens’ civil rights when he shot and paralyzed him. Stephens was wheeled into the courtroom after the verdict with tears in his eyes. He did not speak to reporters, but his court-appointed guardian did.
“It means his young black life matters and he didn’t do anything wrong,” Evett Simmons told the media that day in February 2016. “It’s hard to believe you can ride your bike with a cellphone and end up paralyzed for life.”
Barranco was in court months later asking the judge to dismiss the $22-million verdict, arguing that Stephens’ attorneys equated his shooting to those of other black men nationwide without letting the jury decide the case on its own merits. She also claimed their language influenced the jury’s $16-million award for Stephens’ pain and suffering.
“It was subtle,” Barranco said, according to the AP. “I’m not saying they were screaming, yelling, pounding their fists on the table.” But race, she argued, was “the elephant in the room.”
A judge disagreed in a ruling soon after, saying that the award wasn’t excessive compared to “the enormity of the harm [Stephens] has suffered.”
Days after the verdict, Dontrell Stephens said he forgave the deputy who shot him, but that he “would like an apology.”
Stephens, speaking at a press conference, spoke of how it felt to have his story heard three years later, and for the jury to recognize that he was telling the truth. “You have to forgive people. You can’t hold a grudge against people even if they did wrong,” he told reporters, when asked about Deputy Lin.
In an interview with WPTV, Stephens said, “No, I’m not mad at him. He just did the wrong thing.”
“No one has given me an apology yet,” he added. “If I was to speak with him that would be my words. Are you going to give me an apology for doing the wrong thing?”
But in August 2016, as Stephens became desperate for money and was about to lose a one-bedroom apartment he shared with his three brothers, his attorney asked a federal judge for permission to garnish Lin’s wages. (That request was later denied, because of Lin’s $400-a-month child support payment to his ex-wife and related “head of family” expenses, a judge ruled.)
That October, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office arrested Stephens after conducting a series of undercover drug buys.
According to probable cause affidavits, a dealer named “Mike” sold marijuana, heroin (lab reports later indicated the heroin also contained cocaine), and promethazine with codeine syrup out of the parking lot of an apartment complex in Royal Palm Beach. Authorities determined “Mike” was actually Stephens.
During one alleged incident, an unidentified woman working with cops purchased $60 worth of weed. In another episode, the woman arranged via recorded phone calls and text messages to purchase $200 in marijuana and promethazine. She asked if Stephens could get her “boy,” or slang for heroin. Stephens told her to text him her requests, and he would call “his guy” to see what was available, a police report states.
“He don’t have dat other stuff he say he only got lean,” or promethazine with codeine syrup, Stephens texted the woman. She agreed to buy $40 worth, and $160 in marijuana and created a ruse where her “husband” would pick up the goods. Stephens agreed.
In his probable cause affidavit, a male officer noted, “When I pulled in, I saw Dontrell Stephens coming around the north side of the northernmost building. He was wearing grey pants and a red shirt ... and was in a wheelchair.”
The undercover officer pulled in, and Stephens approached his unmarked vehicle. “He was looking around the parking lot as I spoke with him and appeared to be nervous. As I spoke with him it seemed as if he calmed down,” the cop noted in his report. Stephens handed him a McDonald’s bag, and the officer left, court documents allege.
In a third buy, a Palm Beach narc purchased $60 of marijuana and $20 of heroin, a probable cause affidavit states.
Stephens was ultimately charged with selling his wares within 1,000 feet of a church or school, because a YMCA day care was 379 feet away.
Prosecutors granted Stephens supervised release to a rehabilitation center, where he continued to receive medical treatment after his arrest. Stephens, who has ulcers, kidney stones and other ailments, cannot use the bathroom on his own, the Post reported.
“It’s really a sad situation because he’s never really had much of a support system,” Ian Goldstein, Stephens’ defense lawyer, told The Daily Beast. “He and his brothers have been fending for themselves since small children. The mother passed away about a year ago. It’s Dontrell and his brothers out there, trying to make it on their own.”
Goldstein said that Scarola assembled a team of volunteers to help get Stephens a place to live, medical treatment and educational opportunities.
“The goal here is to try to get Dontrell through his criminal problems and get him some life skills so that he can support himself and be a contributing member of society even with his disabilities,” Goldstein said.
For his part, Scarola told The Daily Beast that the sheriff’s office “had a significant motive to impair Dontrell’s reputation and make it more difficult to get a claim on his behalf” by “entrapping Dontrell into a sale of drugs.”
While Stephens shouldn’t have sold drugs, he is under “extreme economic pressure” and has the “desire not to spend every day by himself rolling around the streets,” Scarola said.
This month, Stephens’ plight made headlines again, when U.S. Marshals seized Deputy Lin’s car, clothes, TV and furniture to sell at a public auction in order to help cover Stephens’ medical expenses. The asset collection came after a federal magistrate gave Scarola permission to seize the property. When the marshals appeared at Lin’s door, he fainted and paramedics were called. Once he came to, Lin watched authorities haul away his belongings.
“It doesn’t give me any joy to do this,” Scarola told the Post. “This was not a happy morning spent on Saturday. It was something we did because we felt an obligation to protect my client’s interest. My client remains destitute.”
John Kazanjian, the Palm Beach County PBA president, called the asset seizure “unacceptable.”
“It’s hard enough with what’s going on across the country to get good cops to take these positions,” Kazanjian told The Daily Beast. “Now if you use force or you’re doing your job, the next thing you know, you’re being sued civilly. You could lose everything.”
The highly-publicized seizure, Kazanjian said, will “make it much harder to get qualified candidates to step up and take these police jobs.”
In court papers, Lin accused the feds of also seizing his pets, which included two dogs, a cat, and an aquarium of fish — a claim Scarola denied. Indeed, Scarola said many items, including those belonging to Lin’s daughter, were purposefully left behind.
Days later, a federal judge ordered the return of Lin’s property because its value did not exceed the legal threshold of $5,000, and the officer’s belongings were trucked back to his townhouse. Despite the setback, Scarola has vowed to keep pushing forward with Stephens’ case. “We are going to keep a close eye on the property [Lin] possesses,” he told The Daily Beast.
The legal eagle told the Post that Sheriff Bradshaw could have spared Lin embarrassment by paying the $200,000 he is required to pay by law. The sheriff’s office, however, is waiting on the hopes of an appeal.
While acknowledging Lin’s property may not amount to much, Scarola said, “If I can collect $100 for Dontrell Stephens, I’ll collect $100 for Dontrell Stephens."