Black motorist’s police brutality lawsuit delayed

Published 3:51 pm Thursday, March 24, 2022

U.S. District Judge Roderick C. Young has granted a request by Windsor Police Officer Daniel Crocker and ex-officer Joe Gutierrez to delay Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario’s lawsuit against them.

The matter was originally to go to trial March 28, but will now likely be postponed several months.

Nazario, who is of Black and Latino descent, filed the suit nearly a year ago, which accuses the two of racially motivated police brutality.

Crocker and Gutierrez had pulled Nazario over in December 2020, for allegedly not having a rear license plate. Body camera footage showed the two holding Nazario at gunpoint while demanding he exit his vehicle.

Nazario had a temporary New York license plate displayed in his rear window, but the officers claimed they hadn’t seen it, and accused the lieutenant of eluding police for having driven roughly a mile down Route 460 to a BP gas station before stopping.

The footage records Gutierrez at one point telling Nazario he “should be” afraid, and that he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” a phrase Nazario’s lawsuit contends is a colloquial reference to an execution. Gutierrez then pepper-sprays Nazario and forces him out of his vehicle and onto the ground.

Gutierrez was fired after the footage went viral online last year, but Crocker remains on the force.

Young had issued an order in January postponing the start of the anticipated five-day trial to May 2. Crocker and Gutierrez then motioned on March 23 that he delay the matter even further since the court had yet to rule on whether either officer can invoke qualified immunity. The request was granted a day later.

Qualified immunity, according to the American Bar Association, shields state actors from liability for their misconduct. Under this doctrine, police officers can never be sued for violating someone’s civil rights unless they violate “clearly established law.”

“’Qualified immunity’ is an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability; and … it is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial,” Crocker and Gutierrez argue in their motion.

Nazario’s attorney, Jonathan Arthur, told The Smithfield Times he doesn’t yet know when the court will rule on the qualified immunity issues. Norfolk’s federal court, he said, is rumored to be “laboring under a substantial backlog of cases” owing to COVID-19 shutdowns.

Whichever way the court rules on the question of qualified immunity, there will be an immediate appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by one or both parties, Crocker’s and Gutierrez’s motion states.

The earliest date Crocker and Gutierrez suggest for the rescheduled trial is the week of Nov. 14-18.