A civil case against two Windsor police officers accused of using excessive force when they stopped a vehicle driven by a Army officer two years ago is set to go to trial Monday in Richmond federal court.
Lt. Caron Nazario is seeking at least $1 million in damages from Officer Daniel Crocker and former Officer Joseph Gutierrez. The trial is expected to last about five days. Both sides plan to call expert witnesses to testify as to whether the officers’ conduct was reasonable under the circumstances, court documents show.
The controversial traffic stop happened on Rt. 460 — the main thoroughfare in Windsor — on the evening of Dec. 5, 2020.
Nazario, who is Black and Latino, was driving home in a recently purchased SUV when Crocker signaled for him to pull over for not having a license plate properly displayed. Nazario flipped on his turn signal but continued driving for about a mile, until he pulled into a well-lit gas station. Gutierrez was nearby and decided to assist when he heard Crocker radio that the driver was eluding him and that he considered it a high-risk stop.
Police body camera video of the incident shows the two officers approached Nazario’s vehicle with guns drawn, shouting conflicting orders and threats. Nazario put his hands out the driver’s side window, but refused the officers’ repeated commands to get out of the vehicle, telling them he was afraid.
Gutierrez pepper sprayed Nazario through the driver’s side window, then knocked him to the ground when he finally exited the vehicle. The officers didn’t charge Nazario, and eventually let him go.
Nazario filed his lawsuit four months later, in April 2021, alleging that Gutierrez and Crocker had violated his civil rights, assaulted and battered him, wrongly detained him and illegally searched his vehicle. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, but the trial is being held in Richmond because many parties involved reside there.
Gutierrez was fired from the police force after body camera video of the incident went viral, but Crocker was allowed to keep his job. A special prosecutor determined in July that no criminal charges were warranted against Gutierrez, though he asked the local U.S. Attorney’s Office to review the case for possible civil rights violations.
Nazario’s attorneys wrote in their trial brief “this entire case turns, more or less, on the reasonableness” of the officers’ actions that evening.
“A jury will not tolerate this behavior,” the lawyers wrote.
Attorneys for the two officers wrote in trial briefs that considering Nazario’s “steadfast refusal to comply with repeated lawful orders,” the use of force was reasonable. Lawyers for Gutierrez also argued he wasn’t aware Crocker had searched Nazario’s vehicle, so he couldn’t have done anything to stop it.
U.S. District Judge Roderick C. Young ruled in August the officers were protected by qualified immunity in the federal law claims made by Nazario, but said his state law claims of assault and battery and wrongful detention could be argued at trial.
The judge already determined the search of Nazario’s vehicle by Crocker was illegal and ruled the jury would only have to decide how much in damages Crocker should have to pay Nazario for that. They also must determine whether Gutierrez was aware of the illegal search and should have done something to stop it.
Jane Harper, email@example.com
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