Judge rejects ex-Windsor officer’s motion to dismiss lawsuit by motorist

Published 4:53 pm Wednesday, February 9, 2022

A federal judge has rejected ex-Windsor Police Officer Joe Gutierrez’s request to partially dismiss Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario’s lawsuit against him.

The Feb. 2 ruling came less than two months ahead of the scheduled March 28 trial date.

Nazario, who is of Black and Latino descent, filed the suit in April, accusing Gutierrez and another officer, Daniel Crocker, of racially motivated police brutality. The two held Nazario at gunpoint and Gutierrez pepper-sprayed him after pulling him over for allegedly not having a rear license plate.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Nazario had a temporary New York license plate displayed in his vehicle’s rear window, but the officers said they didn’t see it, and accused the lieutenant of evading police when he drove roughly a mile down Route 460 to a BP gas station before stopping.

Gutierrez was fired in April after body camera footage of the incident went viral online, but Crocker remains on the force.

Nazario’s suit characterizes the officers’ actions as having violated his Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The suit further alleges violations of Nazario’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech, stemming from Gutierrez’s having offered Nazario a choice after he’d been pepper-sprayed.

“If you want to fight and argue … you have that right as a citizen, if that’s what you want, we’ll charge you,” Gutierrez is recorded as having said to Nazario in the body camera footage. Or, “if you want to just chill, let this go, and no charges filed, we’ll take the handcuffs off, we’ll get you a bottle of water … and sit here until you feel comfortable driving.”

Nazario chose the latter option.

Crocker, who joined with Gutierrez in May in asking the court to dismiss Nazario’s First Amendment claims, had argued Nazario’s rights to speak about the incident “have clearly not been ‘chilled’” by virtue of Nazario having filed his lawsuit and the fact that Nazario ultimately wasn’t charged.

But U.S. District Judge Roderick C. Young declined to do so, arguing in his ruling that “threatening to arrest an individual with the aim of suppressing speech is a constitutional tort regardless of whether the threat is carried out.”

Nazario “has pled sufficient facts to support a claim that a low-ranking military officer of ordinary firmness would have his speech chilled by a threatened arrest,” Young writes. “In fact, Defendant Gutierrez explained to Plaintiff all the ramifications of such an arrest, noting that police would have to notify his command, that regardless of what happens with his criminal charges ‘the Army could jam him for the same thing,’ and that having the charge on his record would hurt his Army career.”

But Young also denied Nazario’s request to declare the officers having admitted to multiple allegations in his lawsuit, to which Crocker and Gutierrez had responded that the body camera footage “speaks for itself.”

“Stating something ‘speaks for itself’ is not sufficient … however, if the answer, when read as a whole, admits a portion of the allegation and denies a portion of the allegation, then it is sufficient,” Young writes, noting the instances where one or both officers had denied Nazario’s allegations “to the extent they misstate or mischaracterize the contents of such video recordings.”