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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 9, 2023 | Back issues
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Florida Deputy Cornered on Stun-Gun-Death Suit

(CN) - The 11th Circuit affirmed a federal court's ruling that a Florida deputy may have used excessive force while arresting a man engaged in self-baptism. The man later died.

The ruling means Pinellas County Sheriff's Deputy Kenneth Kubler is not entitled to qualified immunity, and that the lawsuit filed by the dead man's mother will proceed.

As recounted in court documents, the case stems from a March 2012 incident at a state park in Pinellas County where James Clifton Barnes and his aunt traveled to perform a self-baptism.

During the ceremony, Barnes began to flail around the water and yelled about a demon, according to witnesses.

The lone law enforcement officer in the park, Joseph Tactuk, of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, ordered Barnes out of the water.

When Barnes refused, the officer struggled with him until eventually pulling the man onto the beach.

With the help of bystanders, Tactuk eventually handcuffed Barnes. But the man continued to struggle and Tactuk hit him and pepper sprayed him several times.

Kubler arrived at the scene in response to Tactuk's call for help, and after Barnes continued to resist the officers, Kubler repeatedly used a stun gun on him.

With that, Barnes stopped moving, and the officers realized he was not breathing, the court documents say.

Rescue personnel took Barnes to an area hospital where he died two days later. The medical examiner found asphyxia, blunt trauma and restraint contributed to his death.

In 2014, Barnes' mother, Patricia Juanita Wate, sued the officers involved, as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

The agencies and Tactuk settled, but Kubler asked the district court for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity which shields government officials from unlawful conduct unless the court finds they violated a person's constitutional rights.

According to witness statements in the court documents, Barnes was not moving or barely moving when Kubler stunned him.

"The record establishes that while the first or maybe even the second Taser deployment may have been warranted, there is competent unambiguous evidence that by the third Tasing, Barnes was handcuffed, immobile and still, such that a reasonable officer in Kubler's position would conclude that Barnes did not present a risk of flight, or a threat of danger to the officers or to the public," wrote U.S. District Judge Brian Davis. "Under these circumstances, further shocks were unnecessary and grossly disproportionate, and a jury could find that Kubler's use of a Taser on Barnes five times was unreasonable force."

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