Soldier assault case against officers can be tried

NORFOLK, Va. — A U.S. Army lieutenant who was pepper sprayed, beaten and handcuffed during a traffic stop in Virginia may present his claims of false imprisonment, assault and assault to a jury, a federal judge has ruled.

But the summary verdict on Tuesday said federal immunity laws protect the two officers involved from Caron Nazario’s claims that they violated the black and Spanish soldier’s constitutional protections against excessive force and unreasonable seizure, as well as his right to free speech by sending him to court. reportedly threatened with arrest if he complained about their behavior.

U.S. District Judge Roderick C. Young also ruled that the officer who initially sidelined Nazario is liable for illegally searching for a gun in the soldier’s SUV, in violation of the U.S. Constitution and Virginia law. jury. Nazario had a hidden carrying license.

The uniformed military officer’s December 2020 traffic stop in the small town of Windsor drew national attention and outrage after Nazario filed a lawsuit in April 2021, citing police CCTV footage and his cell phone video of the encounter. He was never charged with a crime.

Nazario had been driving home from his post in the dark when Officer Daniel Crocker radioed that he was trying to stop a vehicle with no rear license plate and tinted windows, the lawsuit said. Body camera video later showed a temporary label stuck to the inside of the rear window.

“It seemed to Lieutenant Nazario that there was no good location in the immediate vicinity to stop safely. So, in the interest of the officer’s safety and his own, Lieutenant Nazario drove slowly down US 460,” the lawsuit says. Nazario drove less than a mile below the posted speed limit until he entered the well-lit parking lot of a BP gas station. , it says.

According to a report cited in the lawsuit, Crocker said the driver “evaded the police” and considered it a “high-risk traffic stop.” Another officer, Joe Gutierrez, drove by and joined him.

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According to the lawsuit, both officers escalated the situation by immediately pointing their weapons at Nazario and pulling him out of the vehicle while holding his hands in the air. Gutierrez sprinkled Nazario several times as the officers yelled at him to get out.

At one point, Nazario said he was afraid to get out, to which Gutierrez replied, “You should be.”

When Nazario got out and asked for a supervisor, Gutierrez responded with “knee strikes” on his legs, knocking him to the ground, where the two officers beat him multiple times and then handcuffed and interrogated him, the lawsuit says.

Agent Gutierrez was later fired for not following department policy during the arrest. A special counsel concluded late last month that Gutierrez should not face criminal charges under Virginia law but should be investigated by the US Department of Justice for possible civil rights violations.

The federal judge ruled Tuesday that the officers likely had reason to arrest Nazario for an incorrectly displayed license plate, accusing him of evading police, obstructing justice and disobeying when he refused to leave the vehicle.

The judge also wrote that Nazario’s allegations under the U.S. Constitution of unlawful seizure and excessive force raise questions about the officers’ conduct that can be presented to a jury. But Young dismissed the allegations under the federal doctrine of qualified immunity, which balances responsibility with the need to protect officials who do their jobs reasonably.

For example, the judge wrote that there is no “clearly established law prohibiting the aiming of firearms, the use of threats, or the use of OC spray against a defendant who has repeatedly refused to comply with lawful orders to exit a vehicle.” .”

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The claim that Nazario’s freedom of speech had been violated was also thrown under the federal immunity doctrine.

However, Young said Nazario’s claims under state law, false imprisonment and assault and battery, could move forward. The judge wrote that Virginia law “only provides local officials with immunity from lawsuits for negligence.”

Young stated his summary judgment on Crocker’s search for the gun, writing that “the firearm was not relevant evidence for the crimes of evading or obstructing justice.” However, he said Nazario’s claims that Gutierrez was aware of the search and could not intervene could continue. Gutierrez has argued that he knew nothing about the search.

Jessica Ann Swauger, an attorney listed for Gutierrez, did not immediately respond to an email asking for comment.

Jonathan Arthur, one of the attorneys representing Nazario, said the judge’s ruling is a victory, though three of the federal claims were dismissed.

“Whether it’s under federal law or under state law, the jury is going to speak,” Arthur said. “And we hope the jury will stand up and say that this behavior will not be tolerated.”

Anne C. Lahren, a Crocker attorney, said the remaining questions are “classic” issues for a jury, rarely decided at this stage in civil proceedings. She also noted that the judge found the arrest itself and the officers’ subsequent orders to be lawful.

“Lt. Nazario’s own actions sparked the unfortunate, but lawful, escalation of violence…,” Lahren wrote. “If Lieutenant Nazario had simply followed the lawful orders of the officers from the start of the traffic stop, none of this would have been necessary.”

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