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Lawsuit against Hillsborough sheriff claims beating by deputies

Juan A. Romero’s eye socket was crushed and a sheriff’s dog left a gaping wound in his thigh, a complaint alleges.
A picture included in a court filing shows Juan A. Romero after a 2018 arrest. Romero has filed a lawsuit alleging he was beaten by Hillsborough sheriff's deputies.
A picture included in a court filing shows Juan A. Romero after a 2018 arrest. Romero has filed a lawsuit alleging he was beaten by Hillsborough sheriff's deputies. [ Ralph Fernandez ]
Published Sep. 8|Updated Sep. 8

TAMPA — A Tampa man is suing Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, alleging that deputies taunted, beat and slammed him into a fence during a 2018 arrest, crushing his eye socket.

Juan A. Romero, 41, also asserts that a sheriff’s dog bit into his leg during the same incident, leaving a gaping wound in his thigh.

It happened after deputies, who had been following Romero during a drug investigation, stopped him for a reported traffic violation. They said he became aggressive when they tried to detain him.

An arrest report in the case states that Romero tried to flee and was “launching himself and the officers toward a metal gate” as they tried to arrest him.

“A chain-link fence does not cause the significant fractures in the face,” said Ralph Fernandez, the Tampa lawyer who brought the lawsuit. “The fact that the man was down and the dog did what he did, that raises eyebrows as well.”

Fernandez filed the complaint last week in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

A supplemental court filing includes pictures of Romero lying on the ground. The images show his bloodied face, swollen left eye and the open, bloody wound to his leg. Although at least three deputies are alleged to have taken part in the beating, the lawsuit names only the sheriff as a defendant.

The Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the case.

Romero was jailed on charges of resisting arrest and possession of cocaine, the latter relating to a small bag of white powder the deputies said they found in his pocket. Hillsborough prosecutors dropped the charges a few months after Romero’s arrest.

Although the lawsuit mentions suspicions that Romero had a large amount of marijuana, none was found.

The incident occurred Sept. 18, 2018. Deputies and agents with the Department of Homeland Security began watching Romero as he left an apartment complex off Henderson Road near Gunn Highway, in northwest Hillsborough County.

The deputies made a traffic stop on Romero’s Chevrolet Tahoe near the solid waste dump at 8001 Linebaugh Ave.

As Deputy Elvin Ruko approached, Romero got out of the SUV, but got back in when a deputy told him to do so, according to the complaint. Another deputy, Vincent Miniet, reached through the Tahoe’s passenger window and removed the key from the ignition, the complaint states.

After that, the complaint alleges, Romero was “forcefully ripped out of his vehicle, handcuffed and a beating ensued.” The lawsuit alleges that several deputies slammed Romero’s face into a chain-link fence. The deputies laughed, the complaint alleges, and told Romero he “should not have gotten in the way of the fence post.”

While handcuffed and on his knees, Romero was repeatedly hit, according to the complaint. As he laid on the ground, a sheriff’s dog attacked, the complaint states. Romero believed he was going to die, the complaint states.

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A sheriff’s report, provided by Romero’s attorney, documented the events surrounding his arrest.

One section, authored by Ruko, describes the Tahoe “swerving” and making multiple traffic violations before deputies stopped it. The deputy wrote that when he asked Romero why he was driving “recklessly,” Romero said he’d been trying to follow his girlfriend.

The report states that Romero began to “tense up” and began to “pull away.” The deputy wrote that he told Romero he would “likely get hurt” if he did not comply. After moving Romero to the front of a patrol car, Romero pushed off the car, then tried to run, the deputy wrote. The deputy wrote that he decided not to use a Taser on Romero, writing that he would have to let go of Romero’s arm, that the jolt would make him angry and be counterproductive. He described a violent struggle to control Romero, claiming that he “resisted numerous commands.”

During the struggle, Romero “ran into the property gate,” the deputy wrote, “and was able to push it open with his head and body.”

The struggle continued. The deputies were able to handcuff Romero after the dog bit him, according to the report.

Romero’s complaint makes two claims of battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It seeks damages in excess of $30,000.

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