- Associated Press - Thursday, February 4, 2016

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - The lead attorney for Dontrell Stephens knows it will be years before the 22-year-old black man receives any of the $23 million he won in a verdict against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office because he was shot and paralyzed by a deputy while unarmed.

But attorney Jack Scarola said Thursday he is confident that the federal jury’s verdict Wednesday will withstand appeals. Getting legislative approval is less certain. Under Florida law, any award against the state or local government in excess of $200,000 must be approved by the Legislature and the governor, a process known as a claims bill.

The Legislature in recent years has been reluctant to approve most of them, even when the local government agency admits wrongdoing and supports the award. In this case, the sheriff’s office contends Sgt. Adams Lin justifiably shot Stephens in September 2013 after stopping him for riding his bicycle into traffic.

Lin, an Asian-American, says he shot Stephens because he reached behind his back and then flashed his cellphone forward like a gun. After more than three hours of deliberations, the jury accepted Stephens’ testimony that Lin opened fire as Stephens raised his hands.

“Under other circumstances, a claims bill would be a considerable uphill battle,” Scarola said. “What gives me reason for significant optimism is the current political atmosphere it would be presented under. The police use of excessive force against young black men cries out for this issue to be addressed by the Florida Legislature.”

Given the appeals process, Scarola thinks the earliest the Legislature could consider Stephens’ award would be 2018.

The sheriff’s office’s legal department didn’t immediately respond to an email.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Florida and at least 32 other states cap the amount of money that can be awarded without a government-approved waiver and at least 29 states prohibit the awarding of punitive damages.

Nova Southeastern University law professor Robert Jarvis said the award will likely withstand appeals, but he believes some legislators will balk because Stephens admitted smoking marijuana about an hour before the shooting, was carrying a small amount and had served a 90-day jail sentence for a felony drug conviction.

“On the other hand, the nation’s increasing recognition and rightful outrage at police shootings of unarmed black men helps Stephens’ cause,” Jarvis said. “Overall, I would predict that a bill eventually will be passed, but that it will be for much, much less than what the jury awarded him and primarily will be for his medical costs.”

An expert testified that Stephens’ total medical costs will be about $6 million if he reaches his current life expectancy of 74. The other $17 million awarded was for Stephens’ pain and suffering, disability, disfigurement and other factors.

Scarola said that any amount that only covers Stephens’ medical costs will sentence him to poverty and an earlier death. He said the sheriff’s office offered a $1.5 million settlement, which would have only covered Stephens’ medical costs so far.

“This young man, guilty of nothing except riding by on wrong side of the road on a narrow residential street, is now sentenced to a life in a wheelchair. That’s inexcusable,” he said. “There is no excuse for society not paying its debt to Dontrell Stephens.”

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