WEST PALM BEACH — Federal judge Daniel T. Hurley took the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office behind the woodshed in yesterday’s decision to go ahead with a trial that could expose shoddy investigation practices in shootings of civilians by Sheriff Ric Bradshaw‘s deputies.
In a 46-page decision that clears the way for a civil rights trial in PBSO’s 2012 killing of Loxahatchee resident Seth Adams, Hurley stopped just short of branding the sergeant who killed Adams, Sgt. Michael Custer, a liar.
However, Hurley took the unusual steps of opening the door to making the sergeant and Bradshaw, who’s running for a fourth term, PERSONALLY LIABLE for violating Adams’ civil rights!
Hurley pointed out Custer substantially changed his story between the time he was interviewed by PBSO Internal Affairs hours after the killing, and the time he was deposed in the lawsuit two years later.
Evidence in the case, Hurley says, disproved Custer’s claims that Adams jumped Custer and grabbed him by the throat during their confrontation.
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Hurley also revived a theory floated by Adams’ family lawyers that Custer shot Adams after Adams caught the married sergeant having sex in his service car with colleague Det. Victoria Miller.
In his decision, Hurley reveals that a third party’s DNA evidence was found on Custer pants zipper and button, and the collar of his shirt on the night of the shooting.
Forensic scientists could not rule Miller out as a secret eyewitness:
In his decision, Hurley went against the findings by PBSO’s Internal Affairs, the State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which all deemed the shooting “justified.”
In five pages devoted to discrepancies between what PBSO claimed and hard evidence, Hurley writes about “genuine issues of material facts” that “question Custer’s credibility.”
— Custer’s first claims that Adams acted “like a lunatic” as soon as he found Custer in his car on the parking lot. Two years later, Custer acknowledged “a few minute interlude of civil discussion” between him and Adams.
— Custer first claims that Adams “broke free and spun around toward (Custer) with his arms raised” after Custer pinned him in the open door of Adams’ truck. In his 2014 testimony, Custer changed his story, saying Adams was “fishing around” in his vehicle for what Custer assumed was a gun (Adams, it turns out, had no weapon!) while Custer had him pinned in the door frame.
— Custer’s claims Adams grabbed him by the throat “as hard as a man could grab you” don’t gel with PBSO’s own photographic evidence show no redness or bruising on Custer’s neck.
— Blood splatter and ballistic evidence disproved Custer’s claims he shot Adams near the driver’s door of Adams’ pickup truck. Hurley wrote he believes Adams “was standing empty-handed and unarmed behind his vehicle, in a position posing no immediate threat of serious bodily harm to Custer.”
Here are the questions that Hurley will pose a federal jury, and what attorneys will argue sometime in February:
- Did Custer violate Adams’ constitutional rights by using excessive force? Possibly yes, according to Hurley. “No objectively reasonable officer in Custer’s position could have reasonably believed he was entitled to shoot Adams,” Hurley wrote. That question will be debated at trial.
- Did Custer attempt to arrest Adams without probably cause? Possibly yes, Hurley believes. “A reasonable officer in Custer’s position would have understood he was violating (Adams’) constitutional rights by attempting to detain him,” the judge wrote. That question, too, will be put to the jury.
- Did Custer fail to provide adequate medical care to Adams after the shooting? No! “Undisputed facts show that Custer did not violate (Adams’) right to medical care,” Hurley wrote. The jury will not debate that question.
- Is Sheriff Ric Bradshaw liable for his failure to train Custer appropriately? No, Hurley has decided. “With no other evidence of a history of widespread prior abuse by PBSO personnel that would have put the sheriff on notice of the need for improved training or supervision, no reasonable trier of fact could conclude that the alleged constitutional violations in this case were caused by the sheriff’s failure to train its officers in the use of deadly force,” the judge concluded. The jury will not debate that question.
- Should the Sheriff be held liable in Adams’ wrongful death? Possibly! Hurley hinted that PBSO’s investigation into the shooting was so shoddy and left so many questions unanswered that it could make the sheriff personally liable for damages. Hurley wrote he will allow Adams’ family lawyers to alter their complaint to force next month’s jury to take up the issue and, possibly, leave the sheriff’s personal assets in play if damages are awarded to Adams’ estate.
Click here to read the 46-page court decision!