With one glaring exception, a federal judge on Thursday cleared the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office of allegations that it intentional destroyed or hid evidence to thwart a multi-million lawsuit filed by the parents of Seth Adams, who was shot and killed by Sgt. Michael Custer four years ago.
While attributing most of the agency’s lapses to negligence or technological glitches, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley said he was still “deeply concerned” that it allowed Custer’s cellphone to disappear.
“I’m disturbed that it was treated so carelessly as it came down the line,” Hurley said at the conclusion of an all-day hearing that included testimony about why the sheriff’s office destroyed Custer’s laptop, didn’t promptly provide emails that were exchanged about the shooting and waited months before revealing the GPS locations of Custer and five other officers who were nearby on the night of the May 2012 shooting.
Before deciding whether the phone’s disappearance warranted sanctions against the agency, Hurley said he wanted to do additional research. He said he was torn between whether the agency acted in bad faith or was “extraordinarily negligent.” He promised to issue a written order soon.
Adams’ parents, who sat in the courtroom throughout the roughly eight-hour hearing, were clearly distressed by Hurley’s rulings. But, their attorney, Wallace McCall, described them as bumps in an already pot-filled road, not fatal blows.
“The important thing is nothing he ruled on today will effect the outcome of this case,” he said. “Michael Custer unjustifiably shot and killed Seth Adams.”
He said he expects a jury will agree when it hears the evidence at a trial he expects to be held next year.
Attorneys for the sheriff’s office declined comment.
Check back for further updates.
UPDATE 1 P.M. Whether the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office improperly destroyed a laptop Sgt. Michael Custer was using on the night he fatally shot Seth Adams – and whether it matters – was hotly contested Thursday in a federal courtroom.
The debate often turned on technical computer terms and legal considerations that U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley must weigh while considering whether the agency should be sanctioned. For instance, PBSO attorneys claim all of the information on Custer’s laptop was stored on servers at the agency so it doesn’t matter that the hard drive was shredded when he was due for an upgrade. Further, they claim, attorneys representing Adams’ family in the multi-million-dollar wrongful death case didn’t ask for the laptop until after it had been destroyed.
Still, even Hurley acknowledged that having the information on the laptop would help attorney Wallace McCall, who is representing Adams’ family, sort out what happened in May 2012 when Custer shot the 24-year-old Loxahatchee Groves resident as he was returning to his family’s garden shop on A Road, off Okeechobee Boulevard, where he also lived. All agreed that there could be some information that wasn’t saved on PBSO servers.
“We can all see there might have been a benefit in saving the hard drive,” Hurley said.
The laptop and Custer’s cellphone are among several items McCall claims the agency intentionally destroyed to thwart the lawsuit. He also claims the agency initially claimed it couldn’t give him GPS information that would show where Custer and six other officers were on the night of the shooting.
Attorney Summer Barranco, who represents the sheriff’s office and Custer, attributed the failure to a simple mistake. Instead of searching agency computer records for GPS readings on May 16, 2012, it searched May 16, 2014. When the error was discovered, the information for most of the officers was provided. For some reason, no information was available to pinpoint Custer’s location.
Hurley suggested the agency may have to pay McCall for the time he wasted, trying to get the information that was readily available but for the gaffe. He suggested that the attorneys negotiate a reasonable amount.
The hearing continues this afternoon.
The original story follows:
A federal judge today will resume a hearing to help him decide whether the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office should be sanctioned for destroying a laptop and misplacing a cell phone that were used by a deputy who shot and killed 24-year-old Loxahatchee Groves resident Seth Adams in May 2012.
While U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley called the agency’s actions “deplorable” at a previous hearing, he said he wanted to hear additional testimony before deciding what action, if any, to take.
If he finds the destruction of Sgt. Michael Custer’s laptop and the disappearance of his cellphone particularly egregious, he could decide the case in favor of Adams’ grieving family. Then, a jury would be asked only to decide how much money the family deserves to be compensated for Adams’ death.
However, Hurley could decide to fine the agency or take other steps to remedy the loss of evidence he acknowledged could have provided key information about why Custer fatally shot Adams as he was returning to his family’s garden shop on A Road, off Okeechobee Boulevard, where he also lived.
Custer claims he shot Adams, fearing he was reaching into his pickup truck for a gun. Instead, the unarmed Adams was grabbing his cell phone.
At the last hearing in November, attorney Wallace McCall, who represents Adams’ family in what is expected to be a multi-million lawsuit, showed Hurley emails in which a deputy indicated that the disappearance of the cellphone was part of “an evil plan.”
However, the lieutenant who received the email testified the “evil plan” had nothing to do with the cellphone. Custer claims he turned it over to the agency’s communications unit as he was told to do so by higher ups. It was never logged in.
Sheriff’s officials speculate that because it was an older model, workers mistakenly gave it to the Domestic Violence Unit. It gives old phones to battered women to use in emergencies.
The laptop, meanwhile, was also an older model, sheriff’s officials have said. It was destroyed as part of a routine practice when deputies are given upgraded computers.
The hearing is expected to last all day.
Hurley has already ruled that the sheriff’s office can’t be sued for violating Adams’ constitutional rights but Custer can be. Custer last month appealed that ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
If the Atlanta-based court upholds Hurley’s ruling, Adams’ family would be in the same situation as Dontrell Stephens. The 22-year-old West Palm Beach man was awarded $22.4 million last month by a federal jury. It ruled that Deputy Adams Lin in 2013 had no reason to shoot Stephens, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
State law places a $200,000 limit on the amount of damages government agencies can be forced to pay for wrongdoing. The only way Stephens can get the full amount is to persuade the Florida Legislature to waive the cap. The caps, however, don’t protect a government agency if it is found to have violated someone’s constitutional rights.