Judge: Search of Army lieutenant's vehicle unlawful, officers granted motions under "qualified immunity"

Army Officer Traffic Stop Lawsuit
Posted at 10:39 PM, Aug 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-10 14:11:34-04

WINDSOR, Va. - It's video of a traffic stop in southeast Virginia that gained national headlines.

The viral video shows Windsor Police pulling over Army Lt. Caron Nazario. The officers could be seen drawing their guns, pointing them at him and using pepper spray on him.

Officer Joe Gutierrez was fired after the video surfaced nationwide. Meanwhile, the other officer, Daniel Crocker, remains on the force.

Earlier this month, News 3 told you Hampton’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, Anton Bell, was appointed to handle the case.

In a statement, Bell called the video very disturbing and unsettling, but also noted no state laws were broken. Bell also requested a federal investigation into whether Lt. Nazario's civil rights were violated.

Tuesday, News 3 investigators obtained a 40-page document from federal judge Roderick Young, including opinions in a lawsuit filed by Nazario against both Crocker and Gutierrez.

“It's [the case] going to stay in the public eye for a little while longer,” legal analyst Ed Riley told News 3.

Riley, a Richmond-based criminal defense attorney with state and federal law experience, has been keeping tabs on the case for nearly two years.

“It's a charged-type case that we're seeing in society in the legal system more and more these last few years,” Riley said.

Young’s opinions cover federal law claims including unreasonable seizure, illegal search and freedom of speech.

For illegal search, Young states the search of Nazario's vehicle was unlawful.

The judge said in part that Nazario was handcuffed, surrounded by first responders and far enough away that nothing in the SUV could be considered in his "reaching distance."

Also, Young stated that a firearm found in Nazario's car was not relevant evidence for crimes of eluding or obstruction of justice, and there was nothing to suggest his possession of the firearm was unlawful.

“Because he was out of the vehicle and a distance away from it, there was no need for the police to search the vehicle without further evidence suggesting there was something of relevance in the vehicle,” Riley said.

When it came to federal claims of unreasonable seizure and freedom of speech, the court granted motions for the officers and denied Nazario's motions. Young cited "qualified immunity" under both claims.

“The police had probable cause to stop the vehicle because of not displaying the plate and not stopping right away,” Riley said. “If there's probable cause, it gives the officers the qualified immunity is what it really boils down to.”

Young also cited qualified immunity when granting both officers motions and denying Nazario’s motions under the claim of excessive force.

Under state law claims, regarding counts of common law assault and battery, Young states in part, "The court has already decided the reasonableness of the officers' actions is a matter for a jury to decide."

“What the court has said now, on these issues specifically, is this can go forward to a trial,” Riley said. “They could always settle the case. If they don't settle it though, this is the count or counts that can go to the jury as the trier of fact and make a determination of what is a reasonable police officer? What is reasonable in your arrest process?”

Tuesday, News 3 also heard from Crocker’s attorneys, who released this statement regarding Judge Young’s ruling:

"We agree with Judge Young's ruling that Officer Crocker and Officer Gutierrez were entitled to qualified immunity on Caron Nazario's core constitutional claims of unreasonable seizure, excessive force, and First Amendment violations. The ruling correctly holds that the traffic stop was lawful as were the commands given by Officers Crocker and Gutierrez that Lt. Nazario repeatedly refused. By refusing to follow commands and resisting the officers, Lt. Nazario's own actions gave rise to the unfortunate, but lawful, escalation of force wherein Nazario was pepper sprayed, removed from the vehicle, and handcuffed. Had Lt. Nazario simply followed the lawful commands of the officers from the outset of the traffic stop, none of this would have been necessary. State law claims for assault, battery, and false imprisonment present classic jury issues and are rarely decided on motions for summary judgment and Judge Young's ruling on those claims is in line with our expectations at this stage of the litigation. With regard to the one issue on which Judge Young ruled for Lt. Nazario, we firmly believe that Officer Crocker's brief verification of the firearm in Nazario's vehicle before releasing him, was reasonable and lawful."

Meanwhile, Nazario’s attorneys also released a statement regarding Tuesday’s ruling.

Attorney Tom Roberts saying in part, “"We expect a jury to have the same reaction to the officer's actions against Lt. Nazario that our nation demonstrated – that they will say 'This has to stop!' This incident rocked Lt. Nazario's world and continues to be a very disturbing event in his life."