RICHMOND, Va. — Lawyers for a U.S. Army lieutenant who sued two Virginia police officers for mistreatment during a 2020 traffic stop say they will ask for a new trial after a jury sided with their client but awarded him far less than the $1.5 million he was requesting.
A federal jury in Richmond, Virginia, found officers Joseph Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker acted improperly in the stop of Lt. Caron Nazario. But, the jury ordered Gutierrez to pay $2,685 in damages to compensate Nazario for the injuries he suffered in the Dec. 5, 2020 nighttime stop and did not award punitive damages.
The jury ordered Crocker to pay $1,000 in punitive damages.
In regard to the charge of illegally searching Nazario’s vehicle, the jury declined to award any damages.
Late Tuesday, Tom Roberts, one of Nazario’s attorneys, told The Progress-Index, part of the USA TODAY Network, that the legal team planned to ask for a new trial, citing Federal Rule 59 which allows a judge to set aside a verdict if he or she is of the opinion “that the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, or is based upon evidence which is false or will result in a miscarriage of justice.”
Roberts said the verdict created “open season on citizens in Virginia and across the country” and that the type of behavior the officers demonstrated would be acceptable.
“It is a sad day,” Roberts said. “Citizens will not rest assured that scenes like this are not repeated with impunity.”
Nazario was returned home to Petersburg, Virginia, from an assignment in Hampton Roads when Crocker attempted to stop him for not having a rear license plate on U.S. Route 460 in Windsor, Virginia, about 50 miles east of Petersburg. Nazario claimed he drove about a mile with Crocker behind him to a convenience store where it was well-lighted and safer for everyone to stop.
Video from the officers’ body cameras showed Gutierrez, who came to the store on assistance, drew his gun on Nazario, who is of Black and Hispanic descent, and ordered him out of the vehicle. As Nazario was asking why he was being stopped, Gutierrez repeatedly pepper-sprayed him and threatened to hit him with a stun gun if he did not cooperate,
Five months after the stop, Nazario and his lawyers filed suit in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, against the officers. The case was later transferred to the court in Richmond.
Nazario has developed anxiety, depression and PTSD, according to his lawsuit. A psychologist also found that Nazariosuffers from race-based trauma associated with violent police encounters, which can exacerbate injuries “in ways that do not commonly affect the white populations.”
An internal investigation by the town of Windsor resulted in Guttierez being fired and Crocker reprimanded. The town police chief held a news conference after the suit was filed acknowledging that errors were made during the stop but he refused to apologize to Nazario for what happened.
In the request for the new trial, Roberts said they will focus on the “gatekeeping function” of the court in weighing testimony by their defense experts that they said added credence to Nazario’s claim that the trauma from the stop affected his mental health.
Bill Atkinson (he/him/his) is an award-winning journalist who covers breaking news, government and politics. Reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BAtkinson_PI.