TALLAHASSEE — In 2013, Dontrell Stephens was riding his bike down a West Palm Beach neighborhood when a sheriff’s deputy pulled up behind him.
Seven seconds later, Stephens was shot four times and paralyzed from the waist down. Deputy Adams Lin said Stephens refused commands to raise his arms, prompting him to shoot. Stephens, 20, was unarmed.
On Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed off on Stephens’ $6 million settlement with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, just a day before the deadline. The decision came four hours after the Times/Herald published online that the bill awaited his signature. He also signed a bill Tuesday awarding a Jacksonville man who was wrongfully imprisoned $2.1 million.
“The relief bills for Dontrell Stephens and Clifford Williams had bipartisan support and were signed by Governor DeSantis because it was the right thing to do,” DeSantis’ spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, said in a statement.
Lawmakers in both parties urged the governor to pass it, and not just because of the current protests over police abuses. Stephens’ shooting, captured on the deputy’s dashboard camera, was one of the rare moments of bipartisan unity during this year’s legislative session. The House and Senate voted a combined 152-2 in favor of the agreement. Only Sens. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, voted against it.
DeSantis himself has a mixed record on criminal justice issues. One of his first acts as governor was to pardon the Groveland Four, the four young black men wrongly accused of raping a white woman in Lake County in 1949. His predecessor, Gov. Rick Scott, had declined to pardon them.
And DeSantis was highly critical last week of the Minneapolis police officer who knelt on the neck of George Floyd for more than 8 minutes, killing Floyd. But the governor has not championed criminal justice reforms in the Legislature, and he had not publicly weighed in on Stephens’ case, which was sent to his desk two weeks ago, until Tuesday’s bill signing.
“I’ve advocated to the governor’s office that the bill become law,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who sponsored the bill this year. “The fact that there was overwhelming support for it in both chambers, that should mean a lot.”
The vote on the Stephens settlement was even more extraordinary considering the Republican-controlled Legislature’s reluctance to approve settlements with local governments. State law requires lawmakers approve settlements with local governments over $200,000, and legislators are notoriously stingy with their power. Many so-called “claims bills” languish for years without a vote.
One reason why it passed was because Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw didn’t want to pay Stephens a dime, and his lawyers tried to convince lawmakers that Stephens, a black man with a history of minor drug offenses, didn’t deserve the money. That strategy offended many lawmakers, Flores and others said.
“The insinuation was there that he wasn’t a Boy Scout, so why should the sheriff give him any money?” Flores said. “And that caused a major backlash from the House.”
Stephens will never walk again. The settlement money would be held in a trust controlled by a guardian and used to pay for his life and medical expenses.
Stephens’ lawyer, Jack Scarola, said called DeSantis’ action “very gratifying” and that it will enable Stephens to not have to worry about “where his next meal will come from.”
“The Claim Bill provides for the payment of only a small fraction of what a federal jury and federal judges found to be just compensation for a lifetime imprisoned in a wheelchair,” he said in a statement.
Scarola also called Stephens’ case “a perfect illustration of the injustices associated with Florida’s sovereign immunity laws and the entire Claim Bill process.”
Lin said he stopped Stephens in 2013 to write him a ticket for not bicycling properly, according to the Palm Beach Post. He also said he didn’t recognize Stephens from the neighborhood. Stephens is black.
Lin, in his patrol car, turned on his lights and siren to stop Stephens. Stephens got off his bike and turned around. Four seconds after getting out of his patrol car, Lin shot Stephens four times. Stephens was holding a cell phone in his right hand.
The sheriff’s office ruled that Lin reasonably feared for his life. Stephens sued, and in 2016, a federal jury found the deputy at fault and awarded Stephens $22.5 million.
But Bradshaw, the longtime sheriff, refused to pay it. When Scarola went to lawmakers to approve the settlement this year, Bradshaw still didn’t want to pay it.
Attorney and lobbyist George Levesque, on behalf of Bradshaw, tried to convince lawmakers that Stephens didn’t deserve the money. He gave lawmakers a packet of social media posts by Stephens showing “photos of him with money and drugs,” Levesque said.
He noted that Stephens had twice been charged with cocaine possession before the shooting, and he was charged with selling small amounts of drugs to an undercover Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy after the jury verdict.
“Mr. Stephens has made poor choices throughout his life, before and after this incident occurred,” Levesque said during the first committee hearing for Stephens’ bill.
Several lawmakers were visibly angry by Levesque’s presentation, however.
“Mr. Levesque, I’ve gotta tell you, I’m trying terribly hard not to be deeply offended by your argument,” said state Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach. “Because it would appear that your argument is that sovereign immunity is somehow a license for a government actor to shoot someone in the back.”
“That is something I could not stand for,” Leek added. “When you come back, I deeply hope that that’s not the argument you make again."
State Rep. Anika Omphroy, D-Lauderdale Lakes, held up the packet of photos and other materials about Stephens the sheriff’s office gave lawmakers.
“I don’t care what this person did beforehand,” Omphroy said. “The nerve of you to sit here and recount the 19-year-old’s life. He was 19 in some of these pictures. I’m just pretty pissed. Do better.”
The sheriff’s office changed their argument when the bill got to the Senate.
“There was absolutely a backlash,” Rep. Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-Miami, the co-sponsor of the bill in the House. “They went on to basically defame him, which is exactly what we see in the media when it happens.”
The other co-sponsor, Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, a Miami-Dade County Republican, agreed.
“I also showed many of my colleagues the dash cam video of the shooting and many were shocked,” he said in a text message.
The backlash prompted Bradshaw to come back to the table. Through negotiations with lawmakers, Bradshaw agreed to pay $4.5 million to Stephens’ trust, plus up to $1.5 million toward any outstanding liens against Stephens for unpaid medical bills.
With the sheriff’s support, the bill coasted through the Legislature. It passed unanimously in the House, which was “virtually unheard of for a claims bill,” Flores said.
Levesque said in an email that “Reasonable people can disagree about what the proper approach should have been and why the claim bill passed.”
“From the start of that process, Sheriff Bradshaw was always willing to pay a reasonable amount for the injuries suffered by Mr. Stephens,” Levesque said. “What was opposed was the notion of giving more than $22 million of taxpayer funds to an individual who was selling drugs at the same time he was asking the Legislature for millions in non-economic damages.”
Joseph said the governor’s signature “would be significant and a positive reflection on him.”
“Just as George Floyd, Dontrell Stephens should not have been treated the way that he was by police,” Joseph said in a statement.