NORFOLK, Virginia — A US Army lieutenant who was pepper sprayed, punched and handcuffed during a traffic stop in Virginia can present his allegations of false imprisonment and assault to a jury, a federal judge has ruled.
But Tuesday’s summary judgment said federal immunity laws barred the two officers involved from facing Caron Nazario’s claims that they violated the black and Hispanic soldier’s constitutional protections against excessive force and unreasonable seizure. , as well as his right to freedom of expression by allegedly threatening him with arrest. if he complained about their behavior.
U.S. District Judge Roderick C. Young also ruled that the officer who originally arrested Nazario was responsible for illegally searching the soldier’s SUV for a firearm in violation of the U.S. Constitution and Virginia law. , leaving the question of damages on that point up to a jury. Nazario had a concealed carry permit.
The December 2020 traffic stop of the uniformed military officer in the small town of Windsor drew national attention and outrage after Nazario filed a lawsuit in April 2021, citing footage of the police body camera and cellphone video of the encounter. He was never charged with a crime.
Nazario was driving home in the dark from his duty station when Officer Daniel Crocker radioed that he was trying to stop a vehicle without a rear license plate and tinted windows, according to the lawsuit. Body camera video later showed that a temporary tag was stuck to the inside of the rear window.
“It appeared to Lt. Nazario that there was no good location in the immediate vicinity to safely stop. So, for the benefit of the officer’s safety and his own, Lt. Nazario proceeded slowly on US 460,” the lawsuit states. Nazario drove below the posted speed limit for less than a mile until he reached the well-lit parking lot of a BP gas station, it says.
Crocker said the driver was “evading police” and considered it a “high-risk traffic stop,” according to a report cited in the lawsuit. Another officer, Joe Gutierrez, drove by and joined him.
The lawsuit says the two officers escalated the situation by immediately pointing their guns at Nazario and trying to pull him out of the vehicle while he kept his hands up. Gutierrez doused Nazario with pepper spray repeatedly as officers yelled at him to get out.
At one point, Nazario said he was afraid to come out, to which Gutierrez replied, “You should be.”
When Nazario came out and demanded a supervisor, Gutierrez responded with “knees” to his legs, throwing him to the ground, where the two officers punched him repeatedly, then handcuffed him and interrogated him, according to the trial.
Officer Gutierrez was later fired for failing to follow department policy during the stoppage. A special prosecutor concluded late last month that Gutierrez should not be criminally charged under Virginia law but should be investigated by the US Department of Justice for possible violations. civil rights.
The federal judge ruled Tuesday that officers had probable cause to arrest Nazario for an improperly displayed license plate and charge him with evading police as well as obstruction of justice and non-obedience when he refused to get out of the vehicle.
The judge also wrote that Nazario’s allegations under the U.S. Constitution of unlawful seizure and excessive force presented questions about the officers’ conduct that could come before a jury. But Young dismissed the claims under the federal doctrine of qualified immunity, which balances liability with the need to protect officials who reasonably perform their jobs.
For example, the judge wrote that there is no “clearly established law prohibiting the pointing of firearms, the making of threats or the use of OC sprays against a suspect who has repeatedly refused to comply with lawful orders to exit a vehicle”.
The allegation that Nazario’s free speech was violated was also thrown out under the doctrine of federal immunity.
However, Young said Nazario’s claims under state law, false imprisonment, assault and battery, can go forward. The judge wrote that Virginia law “gives local officials only immunity from suits alleging negligence.”
Explaining his summary judgment on Crocker’s search for the gun, Young wrote that “the gun was not relevant evidence for the crimes of escape or obstruction of justice”. Gutierrez argued that he knew nothing of the search.
Jessica Ann Swauger, a listed attorney for Gutierrez, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Jonathan Arthur, one of the attorneys representing Nazario, said the judge’s decision was a victory even though three of the federal claims were dismissed.
“Whether under federal law or state law, the jury will speak,” Arthur said. “And we hope the jury will stand up and say that this behavior will not be tolerated.”
Anne C. Lahren, Crocker’s attorney, said the remaining issues are “classic” questions for a jury, rarely decided at this stage in a civil suit. She also noted that the judge found that the arrest itself and the resulting orders were lawful.
“Lieutenant. Nazario’s own actions resulted in the unfortunate, but legal, escalation of force…” Lahren wrote. “If Lt. Nazario had simply followed lawful orders from the officers from the start of the traffic stop, none of this would have been necessary.”