Thursday, February 04, 2016

A Tale of Two Tortfeasors


Another hypothetical, apropos of this:

A federal jury awarded $23.1 million on Wednesday to a 22-year-old black man who was unarmed when he was shot and paralyzed by a sheriff's deputy ....

Lin, who had stopped Stephens for riding his bicycle into traffic, testified that he shot Stephens four times because he reached for his waistband with his left hand and then flashed a dark object that he thought was a small handgun. Stephens testified that he was raising his hands when Lin opened fire for no reason. Video from the dashboard camera in Lin's patrol car showed Stephens' left hand was empty and a cellphone was in his right hand.

...

The jury apparently rejected Lin's claim that he had made an "objectively reasonable mistake" when he shot Stephens. ...

The sheriff's office released a statement later Wednesday night calling the verdict both shocking and disappointing.

"Based upon Mr. Stephens' actions, Sgt. Lin reasonably mistook a cell phone that Mr. Stephens held in his hand for a firearm, and fearing for his life, he shot Mr. Stephens," the statement said.

Let me head off a couple of the usual reader objections to all this: Yes, I know it sucks that the taxpayers, rather than the tortfeasor, are on the hook for damages. And yes, I'm aware that the amount of damages awarded above and beyond the actual costs of e.g. the victim's medical treatment and so forth is something it would be reasonable to argue about.

But, as usual, I'm going to head right into the part that I find interesting and worth thinking about, which is a hypothetical mirror image situation, and even one which gives the "objectively reasonable mistake" claim the benefit of doubt.

Suppose that instead of the cop (Lin) pursuing a suspect (Stephens) for a minor traffic violation, mistaking an empty hand for one with a gun in it, or a cell phone for a gun or whatever the heck happened there, and shooting Stephens, it had been the other way around?

Suppose that Stephens noticed he was being followed, saw something he thought was a gun in the hand of the person following him, and, fearing for his life, pulled a gun and shot Lin, paralyzing him and putting him a wheelchair for life.

In other words, the exact same situation in reverse, the only element not being changed is that Lin is still the one who wears a funny costume, carries a shiny badge and collects a government paycheck, while Stephens is still just a mere mundane.

Would the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office be issuing a statement in support of non-cop Stephens and decrying the settlement because, after all, Stephens "reasonably mistook" deputy Lin for an assailant and feared for his life?

If you think that's what would happen, please contact me about some money I would like to share with you, after you help me get it out of my father's bank account (he was a well-known general and politician in Nigeria, see?).

What would actually happen, if Stephens survived a subsequent manhunt/arrest show, is that he would end up in prison for life (Lin's superiors "investigated" and "cleared" him of criminal wrongdoing -- then promoted him) and that the sheriff's department would spend the next few decades howling for his blood when and if the subject of parole came up, and that the department would enthusiastically back both seizure of Stephens's assets for compensation and the largest taxpayer-funded settlement for Lin that could conceivably be awarded.

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