A Greene County man involved in a vehicle pursuit last year that ended in Hawkins County has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking at least $3.25 million in damages for the alleged use of excessive force.
Gabriel T. Barnett, of Bowmantown Road, Limestone, alleges in a civil complaint filed April 3 in U.S. District Court in Greeneville that Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office deputies and other defendants violated his civil rights on April 12, 2020.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Hawkins County, Sheriff Ronnie Lawson, Deputy Michael Martin and other unnamed “John Doe” defendants employed by the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office.
Barnett’s claims include unlawful seizure and excessive force, assault and battery, “outrageous conduct/intentional infliction of emotional distress” and the failure of the sheriff’s office to adequately train deputies resulting in “deliberate indifference” and supervise them in the field.
Barnett, 25, asks for a jury trial and damages totaling $3.25 million, including punitive damages of no less than $2.5 million and compensatory damages of at least $750,000.
Barnett has pending criminal charges in Greene County relating to the incident. His case was scheduled for a preliminary hearing Wednesday in General Sessions Court but was waived to the Greene County Grand Jury.
Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson said Thursday the allegations in the civil complaint are without merit. Lawson said that because the litigation is pending he could not comment, “except to say I reviewed the facts and my officers didn’t do anything wrong.”
“They acted appropriately,” Lawson said.
He added that Martin “wasn’t even on duty at the time of this pursuit, and there was no excessive force or civil rights violations made by any of my deputies that were assisting the other agencies involved.”
CIVIL COMPLAINT CLAIMS
The complaint filed on behalf of Barnett said that on April 12, 2020, a traffic stop was attempted by a Greeneville police officer dispatched to investigate a possible impaired driver in the 2300 block of East Andrew Johnson Highway. Emergency lights and siren were activated.
Barnett did not “immediately yield to law enforcement,” the complaint said.
A pursuit westbound on Highway U.S. 11E toward Hawkins County began. Barnett did not exceed 65 mph hour in the pickup truck he was driving, “mostly traveling at around 50 miles per hour,” the complaint states.
The Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office was notified as the pursuit neared the county line. Deputies picked up the pursuit as the line was crossed.
Deputies attempted a “rolling road block” but road conditions “were wet and dark,” causing Barnett to lose control of his truck, which went down a short embankment, the complaint said.
Barnett was attempting to climb out of the truck when “multiple law enforcement officers swarmed the vehicle, dragged Mr. Barnett out of the truck, and forcefully threw him face down in a mud puddle,” the complaint alleges.
The complaint alleges that one deputy “violently stomped his duty boot into the back of Mr. Barnett’s neck, forcing his face to remain partially submerged in the mud,” the complaint claims.
Body camera footage shows a deputy “continually forcing Mr. Barnett’s face down by maintaining his boot’s position on Mr. Barnett’s neck, applying his entire body weight right on Mr. Barnett’s neck” as Barnett “screamed in agony,” the complaint alleges.
“While one officer repeatedly stomped the back of Mr. Barnett’s neck, another officer delivered numerous punches to his face,” the complaint alleges.
- It states Barnett can be heard screaming “I can’t breathe.”
- The complaint claims law enforcement officers asked Barnett if he was “trying to get your abeat?” and also told him, “That’s what you get when you run from the police, dumba!”
A deputy then “proceeded to deliver an onslaught of violent, closed-fist punches to Mr. Barnett’s head, face, and neck,” the complaint claims.
Barnett is represented in the civil action by Greeneville lawyers Corey Shipley and Curt Collins.
Barnett was charged after the pursuit by Greeneville police with driving under the influence-2nd offense, resisting arrest, evading arrest, possession of a Schedule V drug and failure to exercise due care.
A Greene County Grand Jury convenes Monday. It’s unclear if evidence in Barnett’s criminal case will be presented at that time.
No hearings have been scheduled in the federal court civil case.