Lawyers for Dontrell Stephens, shot by PBSO, see charges as ‘vindictive’

Ten days after he was shot and paralyzed by a PBSO deputy in 2013, prosecutors charged Dontrell Stephens with cocaine possession and failing to obey a police officer.

But since then, the actions of police and prosecutors have led Stephens’ lawyers to believe that the charges are being used to retaliate against him.

“I absolutely believe this is a vindictive prosecution, that they’re only doing this … to justify what the officer did,” said Stephens’ criminal defense lawyer, Ian Goldstein. “It’s a disturbing case. This is probably the worst I’ve ever seen.”

READ: Palm Beach Post-WPTV Joint Investigation into Police Shootings in Palm Beach County

Dontrell Stephens is partly paralyzed after being shot by a Palm Beach County Sheriff's deputy.
Dontrell Stephens is partly paralyzed after being shot by a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy.

Stephens was shot Sept. 13, four seconds after he was stopped by Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputy Adams Lin. (Lin has since been promoted to sergeant.) Lin said Stephens disobeyed multiple orders to raise his hands, prompting him to shoot.

Stephens, who was immediately paralyzed by the gunfire, had a cell phone in his hand.

Police quickly found reasons to suspect Stephens of drug possession, according to records and a deposition of the case’s lead detective.

Paramedics at the scene cut off his clothes before taking him to St. Mary’s Medical Center. When PBSO investigators looked beneath the clothing, they found a vial of crack cocaine on the ground.

At St. Mary’s, a nurse found a small baggie of marijuana on the floor of the emergency room and handed it to a deputy.

Prosecutors decided to charge Stephens with possession of the cocaine vial, a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to five years in prison.

But according to Det. Kenny Smith, the lead detective in the case, there was no real evidence, beyond circumstance, that the cocaine belonged to Stephens.

“It was underneath his clothing at the scene,” Smith said in a deposition for Stephens’ civil lawsuit last year. “So there’s a possibility that it’s not his.”

To try to bolster the department’s case against Stephens, Smith did something unusual: he sent the vial to PBSO’s lab to see if it contained Stephens’ DNA.

Smith told Stephens’ lawyers that it was the first time in his 14 years at PBSO that he’d sent a vial to the lab to test for DNA. DNA tests are expensive and time-consuming, with results often taking months.

According to Stephens’ lawyers, PBSO’s lab refused to test the vial since the charge was so minor. Instead, the lab sent it to a third party for testing.

It came back negative for Stephens’ DNA, and prosecutors dropped the charge.

But they didn’t give up on pinning a drug charge on Stephens. At that point, more than a year after the incident, the State Attorney’s Office decided to add a charge of marijuana possession, a misdemeanor.

But that charge seems even more flimsy.

Smith said in last year’s deposition that he didn’t try to charge Stephens with marijuana possession because he didn’t believe there was probable cause indicating it belonged to Stephens. He didn’t even bother sending it for DNA testing since a St. Mary’s nurse handed it over to a deputy.

Goldstein said the marijuana possession charge was absurd, especially since Stephens’ clothes had been cut off him at the scene, making it difficult for him to hide marijuana until he got to the hospital.

Stephens has pleaded not guilty to all charges and will not accept a plea deal, Goldstein said.

“He did not do anything wrong,” Goldstein said.

A request for comment from the State Attorney’s Office was not returned Thursday.

Goldstein and Jack Scarola, Stephens’ attorney in his federal civil case, believe the office’s aggressive prosecution is a sign that the case is personal for police and prosecutors.

“Those circumstances clearly reflect retaliatory action by the sheriff’s office against Dontrell,” Scarola said.

 

In PBSO’s payouts, shootings are dwarfed by accidents, misconduct

pb sheriff badgeThe Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has paid out precious little to people who have been shot by police over the years – just $1.7 million, as The Palm Beach Post documented last week.

There are a variety of reasons why: unfriendly courts and judges, unsympathetic victims and a state law that limits many payouts to just $200,000.

As a result, the most PBSO has ever paid out for a shooting since 2000 is just $300,000, to the family of a Guatemalan man who was shot and killed by a deputy who planted evidence at the scene.

But the department has paid out far bigger sums over the same period, mostly for accidents and deputy misconduct cases.

Here are the department’s top non-shooting-related settlements in the last 16 years, according to figures provided by PBSO:

$1.5 million: To Jennifer Graham, who was sitting on a park bench when a PBSO deputy lost control of his cruiser while going to a call in 2003. The deputy struck Graham, seriously injuring the then-29-year-old woman.

 $641,000: To Lawrence Femminella, a PBSO jail deputy who was falsely accused in 2003 of supplying cocaine to an inmate. The inmate said five deputies were supplying cocaine, and each were placed on paid leave. They were later cleared, with an apology from then-Sheriff Ed Bieluch: “These are good employees, good people and good citizens. There was no wrongdoing on the part of any of them.”

$600,000: To Doug Miller and his son Shawn, who claimed they were falsely arrested by a deputy in 2001. The incident apparently started with the senior Miller reporting a speeding driver to police, leading to both Millers being arrested on multiple felony charges, including assault with a deadly weapon, according to the Sun Sentinel. Prosecutors never charged them.

$376,817: To former PBSO deputy Keith Burns, who was fired before being acquitted in 2007 of beating a teen with his baton. He later sued, claiming the entire incident was a “ridiculous witch hunt” and that he had a deal with the previous sheriff, Bieluch, that he wouldn’t be fired before the trial ended.

$350,000: To Michael Mueller, the 19-year-old who was allegedly beaten by deputy Keith Burns, after running away from the deputy during a late-night traffic stop in 2003. Mueller said Burns hit him in the head, arms, thighs and back, requiring metal staples to close a wound on his head and a metal plate in his arm to piece the bone back together. Burns denied hitting him, and a jury acquitted him.

$250,000: To two men who, as children, were molested by deputy Gervasio Torres while they were members of the department’s Explorers program. The allegations were first made in 1992, but the department didn’t launch an investigation until 2003. Torres was convicted of two counts of capital sexual battery and is spending life in prison.

Family of Dontrell Stephens, shot by PBSO, creates fundraising site


Can’t see this video? Click here.

It’s been nearly two years since Dontrell Stephens was shot and paralyzed by a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy.

But he’s only been out of physical rehabilitation for about a month and a half, and now his family is asking for help finding the wheelchair-bound 22-year-old permanent housing.

Stephens’ cousin, Karen, created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money. As of Tuesday evening, it had collected $3,325 toward its modest $5,000 goal.

“He was supposed to find a place but it’s very difficult when he doesn’t have any income,” Karen Stephens said Tuesday. “He really is, essentially, homeless.”

Dontrell Stephens was shot by Deputy Adams Lin in September 2013 after he was stopped while riding his bike.

The incident, which was partially captured on video, showed that Lin shot him four seconds after stopping him. Lin said he thought Stephens was reaching toward his waistband as if he had a gun.

Stephens was unarmed, holding only a cell phone. Lin’s four bullets left him paralyzed from the waist down, and video from the incident received national attention this year.

Lin was cleared in the shooting and was recently promoted to sergeant.

Stephens went to a physical rehabilitation center near Orlando after his release from the hospital. Since he left rehab, he’s been living in an extended stay hotel in West Palm Beach, Karen Stephens said.

His lawyer, Jack Scarola, confirmed Dontrell Stephens’ situation. He said that Stephens was supposed move into an apartment with his mother but his mother never got an apartment.

Although Stephens and Scarola are suing PBSO in federal court, Scarola said legal ethics forbid him from paying his client’s rent.

“We are not in a position to provide him the kind of help he needs, and I wish we could,” Scarola said. “He is one of those people who has most definitely fallen through the cracks.”

Karen Stephens said her cousin has not yet been able to find a job but is receiving a small amount of money for his disability from the Social Security Administration. It’s not enough for him to live on, she and Scarola said.

She’s collecting just $5,000 to cover a few months of rent for Dontrell, she said. Other family members are trying to help as they can.

“No one can do everything all the time (for him),” she said. “People try to help as they can. It’s just a handful of us in the family that are able to do it.”

Stephens’ stint in rehab cost “a few hundred thousand dollars,” Scarola said, but he hasn’t had to pay for it yet.

“They agreed to provide rehab services for Dontrell, with the understanding they would be paid out of the litigation,” he said of the facility.

Despite his situation, Scarola said Stephens is doing well, thanks to the support of his family.

Cop-talk radio show revived, starts airing today

In news that’s sure to get under the skin of local police chiefs, a former cop’s weekly radio program has been resurrected.

Former Riviera Beach police Lt. Rick Sessa’s “The Beat: Real Cop Talk Radio” will begin airing today after a nearly 2-year hiatus, and Sessa says it will keep the same free-wheeling style that drew the attention of police across the county.

The program is airing between 4 and 5 p.m. on Fridays on 900 AM, The Talk of the Palm Beaches.

Under its previous run, “The Beat” featured citizens and officers speaking on and off the record about their personal stories, trends in policing and gossip within local police departments. Sessa was quick to praise police but quick to criticize, too.

“I’m pro-police, pro-those who serve,” Sessa said this week. “(But) one thing I can’t stand is either cops who have no business in the industry because of their values, or lack thereof.”

Sessa’s program was first to highlight the long and troubled career of Palm Beach Shores officer Charles Hoeffer, three years before Hoeffer was accused of raping a blind woman in her home. Hoeffer has been on paid leave for more than a year and could be criminally charged.

Sessa said he plans to talk about the Hoeffer case on today’s program.

The show is returning at the perfect time, when scrutiny over police actions are in the spotlight, he said.

It stopped airing about a year and a half ago after he claims the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office pressured local companies to stop sponsoring the program.

Sessa said he’s been told by JVC Broadcasting, the new station that’s broadcasting the show, not to worry about sponsors.

“I have not been told that I have to hold back on anything,” Sessa said.

Outside police group to spend more than 4 months reviewing PBSO

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office will pay $100,000 for a police think tank to review its internal affairs department and its investigations into shootings.

As part of the deal, six experts with the Police Executive Research Forum will spend months interviewing PBSO staff, comparing the department’s policies to “best practices” and hosting six focus groups to get the public’s input.

At the end of their study, estimated to take about 4 1/2 months, the group will release its findings and recommendations for improvement, according to the contract, signed in May. The PERF team is expected to start late this month, according to a PBSO spokeswoman.

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw asked PERF for help after a joint investigation by The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5 revealed in April that the agency’s investigations into shootings were often inadequate.

The investigation found that PBSO’s internal investigators skew or ignore evidence that could be critical of the shooting deputy and often don’t question a deputy’s statement, even when facts show the deputy didn’t tell the truth. Their reports were also found to leave out basic information, such as how many shots the deputy fired and whether the suspect lived.

Over the agency’s 123 shootings by deputies since 2000, it found only 12 went against department policy.

Bradshaw didn’t dispute the investigation’s findings but said that even if internal investigators’ reports were more thorough, the shootings still would have been found justified.

PERF is a respected think-tank in the world of policing, and the U.S. Department of Justice often contracts with them to help reform police departments.

The group will be looking into many aspects of the county’s largest police department, according to the contract, including:

  • How the agency handles complaints by civilians.
  • How it reviews uses of force by deputies.
  • The department’s policies.
  • How its internal investigators are trained.

PERF will hold six community focus groups “to determine community expectations about PBSO internal administrative investigations,” the contract states.

The dates for those groups have not been announced. The Post will publish them as soon as they’re released.

 

 

PBSO deputy who shot, paralyzed unarmed bicyclist Dontrell Stephens given promotion

Adams Lin, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy who was captured on video shooting an unarmed bicyclist in 2013, was recently promoted to sergeant.

He also has a new assignment: field training, where he works with new recruits.

The promotion comes two years after he shot and paralyzed 20-year-old Dontrell Stephens, four seconds after stopping the bicyclist and getting out of his patrol car.

Lin said Stephens didn’t comply with orders to raise his hands and reached into his back waistband, prompting him to shoot. Stephens had a cell phone in his hands. He was paralyzed from the waist down.

Most of the incident was captured on video. When The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5 aired it in May, it quickly went viral, getting the attention of national media.

PBSO cleared Lin of any wrongdoing in the incident.

Before being promoted, Lin was assigned to community policing. He was the department’s 2010-11 Community Policing Deputy of the Year.

Stephens has sued Lin and PBSO in federal court.

What churches should do if they have a shooter

If the notion of children practicing “active shooter” drills weren’t enough, it turns out the federal government has already thought of ways houses of worship can prepare for the worst.

fema guideIn the wake of the December 2012 shootings of schoolchildren in Newtown, Ct., the federal government issued guidelines for emergency operations at schools and at houses of worship, including what to do if someone starts shooting at a church.

The Insider found it looking for news of the massacre of nine people shot to death at a Charleston, S.C. church during Bible study Wednesday night.

Among the recommendations for things to plan:

  • How to evacuate.
  • Hiding places “Optimal locations have thick walls, solid doors with locks, minimal interior windows …”
  • How to communicate – “Familiar terms, sounds, lights and electronic communications such as text messages or emails.”
  • How everyone will know when it’s safe to emerge.
  • Most highly recommended is sharing with first responders, letting police and firefighters know such things as up-to-date exits, alarms control and locks.

Two new efforts to track fatal police shootings echo Palm Beach Post analysis

The recent national uproar over police shootings has highlighted a gap in understanding the events: No government agency reliably tracks police shootings nationally.

But the Washington Post and The Guardian have started tracking fatal shootings by police since the beginning of the year.

Both, using crowdsourcing and searching the internet, found that roughly 400 people have been shot and killed by officers around the country this year.

They also analyzed the shootings, and their findings were largely in line with what The Palm Beach Post found in its 2015 investigation into police shootings by PBSO.

For example:

  • For minorities, roughly a third were unarmed.
  • The percentage of people armed with potentially lethal objects was more than 80 percent (Washington Post) and 76 percent (Palm Beach Post).
  • The most common weapon a suspect was unarmed with was a gun – 57 percent in the Washington Post analysis and 32 percent for PBSO. That difference could be attributed to methodology. The Washington Post tracked only fatal shootings, while the Palm Beach Post tracked all shootings.

The national efforts, while helpful, also highlight the need for mandatory reporting of police shootings. For example, comparing this year’s number to previous years isn’t possible. And fatal police shootings account for only a third of all shootings.

This week two Democratic senators announced they would introduce a bill requiring police departments to report the incidents to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Palm Beach Post maintains a searchable database of all police shootings in Palm Beach County, regardless of whether someone died, here.

What police want you to know when you’re stopped

During Saturday’s police symposium, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Terrence Carn and Capt. Jeffery Lindskoog held a question-and-answer session about how to interact with police during traffic stops. It was a blunt conversation that showed the officer’s perspective. Lindskoog, for example, said he personally didn’t want to give people traffic tickets because he knows the fees are high.

“Traffic fines in Florida have gotten so ridiculous, truly ridiculous, that I truly feel guilty striking a ticket for someone because the fine is onerous,” Lindskoog said.

For the best chance to avoid getting a ticket — and, more importantly, have a safe outcome — they had the following advice:

1. Stop. Do not flee.

2. If you have tinted windows, roll them down.

Members of the Boynton Beach police department hand out tickets to drivers that made an illegal right turn from the center lane of the southbound exit ramp at I-95 and Gateway Blvd. Monday, June 17, 2013 during rush hour. Cars in the center lane can only legally turn left at the light and head east over the overpass. The cars were trying to avoid waiting in a long line of traffic that was backed up in the turn lane to head west. (Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post)
(Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post)

If it’s night, turn on your car’s dome lights.

3. Put your hands on the steering wheel. Don’t reach for anything.

4. Provide your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance when asked.

5. Explain your movements before making them. Tell the officer you’ll be reaching into your glove box for your registration, for example.

6. After receiving your documents, the officer should say why you’ve been pulled over. If not, you can ask why you’ve been pulled over.

7. If you get a ticket, do not argue with the officer at the scene. Argue the ticket in court.

8. Sign your ticket. Refusing to sign your ticket can result in an arrest, according to Florida law.

Commend or complain about a police officer in Palm Beach County

Has a police officer or deputy treated you particularly well or poorly?

Police chiefs at Saturday morning’s Community Safety Roundtable said they want to hear about it.

So we’ve put together some ways to do that at the agencies represented on the panel, which heard from residents about police concerns.

Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office

File complaints at PBSO: http://bit.ly/1K187UBpb sheriff badge

Internal Affairs  561-688-3035

West Palm Beach Police

Criminal Justice Advisory Board, meets at 8:30 a.m., second Tuesday of the month open to the public

Commend or complain about an officer: http://bit.ly/1SIIlIn

Boynton Beach Police

Email addresses and phone numbers for Chief Jeffrey Katz and other brass, submit feedback, tips, etc: http://bit.ly/1Bx9gvW

North Palm Beach Police

From web site http://bit.ly/1KuY4Ff on filing a complaint: The department will investigate any complaint made by a citizen. Complaints may be received in person, via written correspondence, telephone calls, or anonymously. Please call 561-848-2525 and ask to speak with the supervisor on duty.

Riviera Beach Police

Internal Affairs: Step-by-step ways to file a complaint http://bit.ly/1EHX4c3