NORFOLK, Va. (WRIC) — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a Windsor police officer illegally searched the car of an army lieutenant after he was pulled over in December 2020.
The judge also granted the two officers’ motion to dismiss Lt. Caron Nazario’s claim that the officers violated his constitutional right to free speech and protection from unlawful seizure, citing the doctrine of qualified immunity.
The decision opens the way for the remaining claims of assault, battery and unlawful imprisonment to move forward to trial or settlement.
December 5, 2020
According to court records and body camera footage entered as evidence in the case, Lt. Nazario was driving through the town of Windsor in a recently purchased Chevrolet Tahoe, which did not yet have official plates.
Instead, Nazario’s temporary plates were displayed in the rear window, where they were apparently not visible, giving the appearance that the car had no plates at all. That was the reason given by Daniel Crocker, a police officer in the town of Windsor, for activating his lights and pulling Nazario over.
Nazario continued driving for about a mile after Crocker activated his lights – never going over the speed limit or otherwise driving erratically – before pulling over in a well-lit gas station. During that time, Crocker’s co-defendant, Officer Joe Gutierrez, also joined the pursuit.
The two officers immediately pointed their guns at Nazario, who remained in his car. Nazario repeatedly asked the officers “What’s going on?” but received no response other than an order to keep his hands outside the rolled-down car window.
Nazario complied with that order, but when the officers ordered Nazario to exit the vehicle, Nazario refused, later writing in his complaint that he feared for his life.
When Nazario told Crocker that he would not exit the vehicle because he was afraid, Crocker, who had earlier threatened to taze Nazario, said, “Yeah, you should be.”
Eventually, Gutierrez pepper-sprayed Nazario four times, after which Nazario exited the vehicle, but did not get on the ground when ordered, otherwise offering no resistance to the officers.
Gutierrez kneed Nazario twice, bringing him to the ground and handcuffing him. A few minutes later, medics arrived on the scene to treat Nazario for the pepper spray, and asked him where his firearm was located in the car.
Nazario, who held a concealed carry permit and owned the firearm legally, told the medic where it was, and Crocker entered the car to search for it. He eventually found it, confirmed that it was not stolen, and returned it to the vehicle.
After declining to arrest Nazario, Gutierrez and Crocker both wrote in their report that Nazario assaulted Gutierrez while resisting arrest and that Gutierrez had issued a verbal warning before pepper-spraying Nazario. Both of those claims are contradicted by video evidence from the officers’ body cameras.
Nazario made a total of eight claims against the two officers, who were ultimately not charged with any criminal wrongdoing after the incident.
On Tuesday, the judge dismissed three of those claims, finding that the doctrine of qualified immunity protected the officers, even if their actions would otherwise have been illegal or violated Nazario’s rights.
However, the judge also handed a victory to Nazario, finding that the body cam footage and testimony from the officers were sufficient to find that Officer Crocker had illegally searched Nazario’s vehicle when he retrieved his handgun from the front seat. That means Crocker will be liable for two counts of an illegal search.
The ruling leaves open the question of the three remaining claims for assault, battery and unlawful imprisonment. Judge Roderick Young wrote that on those claims, “the reasonableness of the Officers’ actions is a matter for a jury to decide.”