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New trial ordered in civil rights lawsuit for officer shooting

 

In this civil rights lawsuit involving an officer shooting, the plaintiff, Evett Stephens, claimed a constitutional violation as a result of the excessive force used against him by Palm Beach Sheriff deputy Adams Lins as an individual and against Sheriff Ric Bradshaw in his official capacity as the sheriff of Palm Beach County. This is how the facts unfolded. Deputy Lin was on police duty monitoring traffic during school bus pickups observed Stephens riding his bike on the wrong side of the road. Deputy Lin decided to stop Stephens for some reason. Stephens claimed he was holding a cell phone to his ear while riding his bike prior to the stop. Lin says he never saw the cellphone. Upon hearing the sirens of Lin’s patrol car Stephens dismounted from is bike. Lin instructed Stephens to walk toward him while showing his hands. According to Lin, Stephens turned away from Lin as he began to approach Stephens. As soon as Stephens turned away, Lin shot Stephens four times leaving him a paraplegic.

The district court granted a summary judgment in favor of Sheriff Bradshaw as to the Monell claim against him following a length hearing. At trial, the jury returned a verdict against Lin for the 1983 excessive force claim and against Sheriff Bradshaw for the state court battery claim.

The issue confronting the court of appeals was whether deputy Lin was entitled to qualified immunity protection. A government official faced with a civil rights claim is entitled to the affirmative defense of qualified immunity which generally shields government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. While the issue of qualified immunity can be resolved by the trial court as a matter of law in a motion for summary judgement, resolution of this issue can sometimes turn on issues of fact. In circumstances where there is some dispute about the facts having a bearing on qualified immunity, the case will be a jury trial.   Here the court’s instruction incorrectly delegated the resolution of the issue of qualified immunity to the jury as a legal matter

This case involving excessive force by a police shooting involved contested factual issues bearing on the Defendant’s entitlement to qualified immunity. It is not the province of the jury to decide a defendant is entitled to qualified immunity and not liable for a civil rights violation. For this reason, by delegating the issue to the jury, Lin was no afforded an opportunity to have his claimed defense of qualified immunity determined by the court as he is entitled to have. Because the jury instruction did not accurately reflect the law and Lin was improperly deprived of the opportunity to have his defense of qualified immunity considered by the district court, it was an abuse of discretion.

Stephens’ Monell claim was denied because he could not establish a pattern or practice of constitutional violations and the shooting must be evaluated as a single incident. The incident alone does not establish a custom or tolerating excessive force in the Palm Beach Sheriff’s office.