In 2013, a young man named Dontrell Stephens was pulled over by a sheriff’s officer in Palm Beach County, Florida, because he incorrectly made a truck yield to him on his bicycle.
What should have been a routine, casual encounter rapidly escalated, and within just four seconds of confronting Stephens, Deputy Adam Lin shot the biker four times. Lin said after the fact he believed Stephens was reaching for a gun, but there was no gun — and dashcam video appears to show Stephens was shot in the back, meaning he could not have threatened Lin’s safety.
At just 20 years old, Stephens was left paralyzed from the waist down.
Stephens sued; and though the Florida State’s Attorney’s office cleared Lin of all criminal wrongdoing, a jury disagreed. They awarded Stephens $22.4 million in damages in February of 2016, but state law says any award over $200,000 has to be approved by the Florida state legislature.
That could take a long time, so Stephens went back to court. Once again, he won, and this time the judge approved a creative solution based in personal responsibility:
Stephens’ attorney found another way to start payment of the minimum amount in the suit, by auctioning off Lin’s assets.
“This case cries out for compassion. There’s no doubt Dontrell Stephens…will spend the rest of his life in a wheel chair,” said Stuart Kaplan, former FBI special agent.
Kaplan says the move by a federal judge, even when the 22.4 million dollar jury verdict is up for appeal, speaks to the need to start getting money to Stephens. “The judge has been satisfied and realizes the urgency that it is more important to try to get this young man some money so that he can offset some of these, I can only imagine what his medical bills are to date,” added Kaplan.
Now, the auction may not happen, as Lin has the opportunity to appeal, but this ruling is a step in the right direction. Instead of saddling innocent taxpayers with the costs incurred by Lin’s misconduct, the man himself has been held responsible.
This is precisely what I’ve argued should happen for the sake of police accountability and fiscal responsibility both. Taxpayers should not have to pay the settlements for police officers’ misconduct and mistakes. And if cops are individually responsible, they’ll be less likely to do stuff like shooting an unarmed guy on a bike within four seconds of meeting him:
[A]ccountability measures like this can serve to improve police behavior, not impede it. Just like the rest of us, cops are going to do a better job if they know they’ll be held responsible when they screw up.
Economist Thomas Sowell was speaking of education policy when he commented that, “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”
But if I may slightly tweak the quote, it is equally hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of policing than empowering people to enforce our multitude of confusing and obscure laws who pay no price for being wrong.
Whether this Florida judge’s auction ruling survives the appeals process or not, it’s a step in the right direction. City and state governments should use this ruling as inspiration to revise their laws governing police misconduct and create a similar requirement of personal responsibility.