Most of the time, our police officers and other emergency responders do an excellent job of serving the public and keeping us safe. However, there are instances in which police officers have been known to breach departmental policy, professional standards and even the law, resulting in serious injury or even death.
This is what one family alleges occurred in Palm Beach County in an encounter between a sheriff’s deputy and a 24-year-old man at his family’s garden shop, where he also resided. The family is suing the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office for wrongful death of the young man, and a federal judge recently declined to grant summary judgment to the agency.
In Adams v. Bradshaw, the family filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, and the case is now expected to proceed to trial.
It’s important to note that in any case alleging misconduct or negligence by a police officer and/ or a police department, you are going to encounter several challenges. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the fact that police are entitled to certain legal protections when acting in their official capacity. This is known as “qualified immunity,” and it is a federal statute that protects federal employees. In order to overcome it, plaintiffs have to show the police willfully acted in an unreasonable manner. Simple negligence by police will not be enough to overcome the protections afforded by qualified immunity.
Courts in most of these cases alleging excessive force resulting in personal injury or wrongful death will need to show the police used unreasonable force under the circumstances. In years past, that often meant the alleged victim’s word against that of the police (and other officers typically covered for their own). However, the growing prevalence of dash cameras, police body cameras and even smartphones held by the public has increasingly made these cases somewhat easier to pursue.
In the Adams case, the basic facts are in dispute. The key question will be whether a jury decides the decedent made the deputy believe he was in imminent danger of harm. It is undisputed that the deputy shot and killed the decedent in the parking lot of the family-owned garden shop.
At the time, the deputy was working undercover on an unrelated surveillance operation. The decedent pulled into the parking lot around 11 p.m. He lived on the property with his brother and sister-in-law. The deputy was in plain clothes and his vehicle was unmarked. He parked in the lot at the same time.
This is where the details get hazy. The deputy says decedent approached him in a hostile and aggressive manner, and that even after he identified himself as law enforcement and flashed his badge, decedent choked him. When decedent reached for his gun, that’s when the deputy says he shot him.
Family members vehemently deny this version of events, and say that physical evidence – including a lack of bruises on the deputy’s neck and the blood trail left by decedent – doesn’t match the deputy’s account.
In a review of the evidence on a request for summary judgment by the sheriff’s office, the federal judge determined decedent did not forcibly batter the officer before the shooting and that decedent was unarmed with nothing in his hands near the rear tire of his pickup truck when the first shot was fired.
Given the strength of plaintiff’s evidence, the judge ruled it should be up to a jury to decide whether the deputy – and therefore the sheriff’s office – are liable for wrongful death.
Call the wrongful death attorneys at Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
Seth Adams wrongful death case will go to jury amid conflicting evidence judge rules, Jan. 12, 2016, By Kate Jacobson, Sun-Sentinel
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