Judge: No new trial for guardsman who sued Windsor officers

Published 9:05 pm Monday, May 8, 2023

The Virginia National Guardsman who sued Windsor police officers for holding him at gunpoint and pepper-spraying him during a 2020 traffic stop that went viral online and sparked accusations of racism won’t get a new trial, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, May 3.

Attorneys for 1st Lt. Caron Nazario, who is of Black and Latino descent, had sought more than $1 million in damages from officers Daniel Crocker and Joe Gutierrez, the latter of whom was fired over the incident. After two days of deliberations, a jury in January found Gutierrez liable for assault – but not battery – and found Crocker liable for having illegally removed a firearm from Nazario’s car. The nine-member jury, which included one Black member, awarded Nazario a total of $3,685 – $2,685 from Gutierrez and another $1,000 from Crocker.

Three days after the Jan. 17 verdict, Nazario’s attorneys filed a post-trial motion asking U.S. District Court Judge Roderick Young to set aside the jury’s decision and either increase the damages awarded to Nazario or grant a new trial.

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Young had ruled in 2022 when dismissing Nazario’s excessive force claims that Crocker had “probable cause” to pull the guardsman over when he observed Nazario’s Chevrolet Tahoe traveling down Route 460 through Windsor seemingly without a rear license plate. Gutierrez responded to the scene when Crocker reported a “felony traffic stop” to dispatchers. Nazario had a temporary, expired New York tag taped to the inside of his car’s window, but Crocker said he didn’t see it and accused the guardsman of eluding police for driving roughly a mile down the four-lane highway to a BP gas station before stopping.

Citing his 2022 ruling on the legality of the stop itself, “it is therefore conceivable that the jury could have found that the actions taken by Officers Gutierrez and Crocker were reasonably necessary to effectuate the stop after Nazario began resisting, and thus were legally justified,” Young wrote in a May 3 opinion accompanying his ruling.

Young did, however, agree to increase by $2 the amount Crocker must pay for the illegal search. The jury had awarded $1,000 in “punitive damages,” which serve as a deterrent to others against committing the same offense, but awarded nothing in “compensatory damages,” which are intended to compensate a plaintiff for any loss suffered.

Nazario attorney Jonathan Arthur declined to comment on Young’s ruling, but noted the resolution of the set-aside motion “begins our filing timeline” for “appellate actions,” indicating further appeals are possible.

“We believe the judge handled the trial well at every level, that the jury verdict was in line with the evidence presented, and that there was no basis for a new trial,” said attorney Anne Lahren, who had represented Crocker. “While the jury clearly believed zero dollars was appropriate, the law supports nominal damages of $1 on each count as the judge ordered. We have no objection to that or any other part of the ruling.” 

Gutierrez and Crocker had collectively offered Nazario $150,000 to settle the lawsuit ahead of the Jan. 9-17 trial, according to court records, which Nazario turned down. Had Nazario accepted the settlement, it would have amounted to well below what the guardsman had accrued in attorney fees. Arthur, on Jan .31, filed for $52,692.25 in court costs and another $491,967.50 in attorney fees under provisions of federal law that allow the “prevailing party” to recover costs and fees.

Arthur, Lahren and Gutierrez attorney Coreen Silverman, in post-trial motions, each cited the wildly lower-than-asked jury award to argue the opposing side should pay their court costs. Young has yet to rule on the court costs and attorney fees issue, though Lahren expects he will do so later this week.

A state lawsuit alleging an “unlawful pattern” of conduct by Windsor’s Police Department, which cites the Nazario incident, is still pending in Isle of Wight County’s Circuit Court. A May 24 hearing on the matter is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. in Suffolk’s courthouse.

Editor’s note: This story is updated to correct that the hearing is May 24, not May 25.