Army officer pepper-sprayed during traffic stop asks for a new trial in his lawsuit against police

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A U.S. Army lieutenant who was struck, pepper-sprayed and handcuffed during a traffic stop in Virginia asked a federal appeals court on Monday to overturn rulings by a trial judge after jurors found mostly in favor of the two police officers he sued.

Video of the December 2020 encounter between Lt. Caron Nazario and Windsor police officers was viewed millions of times and highlighted Black drivers’ fears of police mistreatment.

In a legal brief filed Monday, Nazario argues that the court erred when it found in a pretrial ruling that Officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker had probable cause to believe Nazario committed the crimes of eluding police, obstruction of justice and failure to obey an order.

Nazario also contends that the court erred when it dismissed his claims of unreasonable seizure, excessive force and First Amendment retaliation. He also claims the court gave two erroneous jury instructions and is asking for a new trial. He filed his appeal with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

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“We believe that the jury’s verdict was in part influenced by some of the rulings the trial court made, and we are asking the 4th Circuit to review those rulings,” said Jonathan Arthur, Nazario’s lawyer.

Anne Lahren, one of Crocker’s attorneys, said the trial court “was correct in its rulings on every issue that is now up on appeal.”

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“The Judge and the jury saw the videos, heard witnesses, and overwhelmingly ruled in favor of the officers,” Lahren said in a statement.

The Associated Press sent emails seeking comment to attorneys representing Gutierrez.

In January, a federal jury in Richmond largely sided with the police officers, finding in favor of Gutierrez on Nazario’s claims of battery, false imprisonment and an illegal search. The jury also found in favor of Crocker on claims of assault and battery and false imprisonment.

The jury did find Gutierrez liable for assault and awarded Nazario $2,685 in compensatory damages. Jurors also found that Crocker had illegally searched Nazario’s SUV and awarded Nazario $1,000 in punitive damages.

Nazario, who had sought $1 million in damages, asked for a new trial, but U.S. District Judge Roderick Young rejected that request in May, finding that Nazario had not shown “that the jury’s findings were not within their discretion.”

The confrontation between police and Nazario began on Dec. 5, 2020, when officers pulled Nazario over in Windsor, a rural town of about 3,000 in southeast Virginia. The officers said Nazario’s Chevrolet Tahoe did not have a rear license plate. Nazario’s lawyers said the car dealer had placed temporary tags in the upper right-hand corner inside the rear window.

Video showed Crocker and Gutierrez pointing handguns at a uniformed Nazario, who sat behind the wheel of his SUV while parked at a gas station. The officers repeatedly ordered Nazario to get out of his vehicle, with Gutierrez warning at one point that Nazario was “fixing to ride the lightning” when he didn’t get out.

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Nazario, who is Black and Latino, held his hands in the air outside the driver’s side window and repeatedly asked why he was being stopped.

Gutierrez went on to pepper-spray him through the open window. Once Nazario got out of the vehicle, the officers ordered him to get on the ground, with Gutierrez using his knees to strike Nazario’s legs, Nazario’s lawsuit states.

Nazario has developed anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to his lawsuit.

Crocker is still on the force, but Gutierrez was fired in April 2021.

Last month, in a separate settlement with Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, the town of Windsor agreed to independent reviews of any misconduct allegations against its police force and additional officer training. The Attorney General’s Office said its investigation found that while about 22% of Windsor’s population is Black, it accounted for about 42% of the department’s traffic stops between July 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021. The department also searched more vehicles driven by Black motorists than by white drivers.

“The Town of Windsor has worked diligently within its police force to enhance training, improve policies and procedures, and ensure the public that its law enforcement operates without prejudice and within the law,” the town said in a statement after the settlement was announced.

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