Judges decline to rehear Nazario appeal

Published 4:45 pm Monday, July 8, 2024

A panel of federal judges declined to reconsider their May ruling that upheld a Richmond jury’s 2023 verdict awarding a wildly lower-than-requested monetary award to Virginia National Guard 1st Lt. Caron Nazario.

The panel wrote in its June 28 order that the court “denies the petitions for rehearing,” noting “no judge requested a poll” in response to Nazario attorney Jonathan Arthur’s request for an “en banc” hearing, which if granted would have allowed all Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judges, and not just the original panel, to vote on whether to rehear the case.

The Black and Latino guardsman sued Windsor Police Officer Daniel Crocker and ex-officer Joe Gutierrez in 2021, ascribing racist motives to their having held him at gunpoint and pepper-sprayed him during a Dec. 5, 2020, traffic stop. A jury last year awarded Nazario just $3,685 after finding Gutierrez liable for assault – but not battery – and Crocker liable only for having illegally removed a firearm from Nazario’s car.

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Arthur had pushed for a new trial, arguing to the Fourth Circuit panel that the lower-than-asked monetary award was the result of U.S. District Court Judge Roderick Young, who presided over the trial, having erred in instructing the jury that the officers would have been justified in charging Nazario with eluding police and obstructing justice.

Appellate Judge Robert King, who authored the court’s May 31 opinion reversing only one of Young’s three rulings granting qualified immunity to the officers, upheld Young’s ruling that the officers had “probable cause” to pull Nazario over for the expired, temporary New York license plate obscured behind his vehicle’s tinted rear window, but asserted Young had erred in finding cause to justify the officers’ suspicion that Nazario was eluding police. Despite this, King conceded the officers would have been justified in charging Nazario with misdemeanor obstruction of justice, noting that when Crocker attempted to open the driver’s-side door of Nazario’s car, Nazario used his elbow to keep the door shut. That act was key to King’s concluding that “the jury could have still factored the presence of probable cause into their verdict,” and the appellate panel’s refusal to set that verdict aside.

Arthur had filed his request for a rehearing, either in front of the original panel or before the entire Fourth Circuit, on June 14. Arthur did not immediately respond to The Smithfield Times’ inquiry about whether he plans more appeals. According to the federal court system’s website, a litigant who loses in a federal court of appeals or in the highest court of a state has the option of asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, though the Supreme Court does not have to grant the review.