Excessive Force

Wate v. Kubler, 839 F.3d 1012 (11th Cir. 2016)

Eleventh Circuit upholds district court’s refusal to grant law enforcement officer’s motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity in response to a claim that he used excessive force in responding to a person in mental health crisis where there was evidence that the officer Tasered the detained person at least twice after the person had stopped actively resisting the officer.

Background: James Barnes was visiting a beach on Honeymoon Island in Florida with his aunt Paula Yount in order to conduct a baptismal ritual. While in the water, Barnes began acting erratically by flailing around and yelling about a demon. The only law enforcement officer on the Island at the time was Officer Tactuk, who responded to the commotion in the water. Yount came out of the water to speak with Tactuk, who then believed there was probable cause to arrest Barnes for battery on Yount. Tactuk entered the water and attempted to arrest Barnes, but a struggle ensued and Tactuk repeatedly struck Barnes in the face. Tactuk was able to place a handcuff on one of Barnes’s hands and they continued to struggle in the water. Bystanders eventually helped Tactuk drag Barnes onto the beach. Multiple witnesses had called 911 to report the incident and Tacktuk called for backup over the police radio. Tactuk attempted to place Barnes’s other hand in handcuffs, and a bystander observed that during the struggle, Barnes was coughing blood and appeared to have difficulty breathing. Officer Kubler responded to the incident about seven minutes after Tacktuk’s initial encounter with Barnes. Kubler and Tactuk continued to struggle with Barnes until Kubler deployed his Taser a total of five times over the course of nearly two minutes. Barnes became still and the officers were able to handcuff him. There was a dispute between the officers’ testimony and that of bystanders regarding when Barnes stopped resisting. An off-duty fire lieutenant who came to the scene at that point told the officers to take the handcuffs off because Barnes was not breathing and had turned blueish gray. The officers then removed the handcuffs and began CPR. Rescue personnel responded to the scene and took over the rescue, but Barnes died two days later. The cause of death was determined to be complications of asphyxia with contributory conditions of blunt trauma and restraint. Barnes’s representative brought suit against the officers and agencies involved. The other parties in the case settled with the plaintiff, but Officer Kubler moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion and Kubler appealed.

Holding: The Eleventh Circuit ruled that Kubler was not entitled to summary judgment and affirmed the holding of the district court. The court found that by reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, as required at the summary judgment stage, “a reasonable officer in Kubler's position and under these circumstances would have had fair warning that repeatedly deploying a Taser on Barnes, after he was handcuffed and had ceased resisting, was unconstitutionally excessive.”

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 4