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Deputies May Face Claim They Tased Man to Death

(CN) - Florida deputies who alleged beat and Tasered a man to death while he was engaging in self-baptism could face charges for violating the man's constitutional rights, a federal judge ruled.

Patricia Wate sued Pinellas County (Fla.) Sheriff Bob Gualteri and Deputies, Joseph Tactuk and Kenneth Kubler, in the federal court in Tampa in January 2014, on behalf of the estate of James Barnes.

In March 2012, Barnes traveled to Honeymoon Island, a popular state park, and entered the water intending to "cleanse his spirit by baptizing himself in the water," the complaint said.

Once in the water, Barnes sat on the sea floor up to his chest and, with the assistance of an aunt, Paula Yount, who had traveled with him, submerged himself under water.

It was at this point that Deputy Tactuk, an officer with the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection, arrived on the scene and told Barnes to get out of the water.

As recounted in the complaint, Young left the water to explain that Barnes was engaging in "self-baptism," but Tactuk would have none of it, and he proceeded into the water to arrest the still-seated Barnes.

Wate alleged the Tactuk used excessive force while arresting Barnes, including hitting Barnes in the face with his fists; submerging the man in the water with his knee, depriving Barnes of oxygen; putting him in a chokehold; pushing Barnes' face against rocks on the sea floor; and spraying him with pepper spray.

Wate said as these events unfolded, bystanders urged Tactuk to stop beating Barnes, but to no avail.

The officer allegedly dragged Barnes out of the water by his legs, and continued to beat and pepper-spray him. By this time, Deputy Kenneth Kubler arrived at the scene in a patrol boat. and he allegedly beat Barnes as well.

According to the complaint, Barnes soon began having difficulty breathing and spewed out blood with every breath, barely moving. Still, Kubler Tased him repeatedly until he was unconscious, not breathing and blue in color, she said.

Wates claims the deputies did not timely offer medical assistance to Barnes at the scene. He was pronounced dead two days later, with asphyxia and blunt trauma recorded as the cause of death, Wate said.

She claims the deputies' excessive force, unlawful arrest and delay of medical care violated Barnes' constitutional rights, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Florida state and common law.

Wate also asserted that Gualteri is also liable for failure to train and supervise the deputies.

Kubler denied the allegations, claiming when he arrived Tactuk was already in the process of the arrest and he had probable cause based on the "fellow officer" rule.

This rule allows an arresting officer to assume probable cause to arrest a suspect through information supplied by other officers.

But Wate argued that it is an officer's obligation to intervene to stop excessive force when he is in a position to do so.

U.S. District Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington found Wate had not proved the deputies had a culpable state of mind when delaying Barnes medical care, and allowed her to amend her complaint to add sufficient evidence.

Further, Judge Covington found Wate did not include enough factual causes to prove the deputies violated common law and granted her leave to amend her complaint on that issue as well.

Kubler's motion to dismiss was granted on all counts except the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violation claims. Covington said Wate sufficiently stated her claim as to Kubler's excessive force by deploying a taser on Barnes several times while he was handcuffed.

Regarding Sheriff Gualteri's motion to dismiss, Covington found Wate had not established the elements to show Gualteri failed to train his employees and granted her leave to amend that allegation as well.

Wate has until Nov. 4 to amend her complaint.

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