WINDSOR, Va. — A Windsor police officer's search of an Army lieutenant's car during a December 2020 traffic stop was illegal, a U.S. district court judge wrote in an opinion Tuesday.
The traffic stop happened on Dec. 5, 2020, and it involved Army Lt. Caron Nazario and Windsor police officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker.
Gutierrez and Crocker pulled over a newly-bought SUV for not having a rear license plate. It turned out Nazario did have a temporary license plate taped to the inside of his rear window, but the court found that to be a reasonable "probable cause" for the officers to pull him over.
The problems came after he parked the SUV. Nazario was yelled at and pepper-sprayed by Gutierrez, body camera video shows.
In a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Nazario alleged Crocker conducted two illegal searches during the traffic stop: one of his vehicle and another for an examination of his firearm.
In a summary judgment released Tuesday -- a judgment entered by a court for one party and against another party without a full trial -- U.S. District Judge Roderick Young said Crocker's search was a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The court said looking for the gun in Nazario's car was a violation because Crocker didn't have a warrant to search the car, Nazario was out of reach of the car and cooperating, and the gun was "not relevant evidence for the crimes of eluding or obstruction of justice."
That is, not relevant to the reasons for the traffic stop.
Nazario also alleged Joe Gutierrez was aware of the search, which would make him liable as a bystander, but Young said the issue can't be resolved within a summary judgment.
Young did strike down Nazario's other claims of Fourth Amendment violations -- allegations of unreasonable seizure and excessive force -- under the doctrine of qualified immunity.
Jonathan Arthur, Nazario's lawyer, said these claims could still hold weight.
"This is not to say that the Court determined that there was no violation," he wrote. "Rather, the doctrine of Qualified Immunity compelled the Court to strike the other Federal Claims because the Court decided law was not sufficiently clear as to put the defendants on notice that their conduct violated the law."
Brandon Randleman, Isle of Wight NAACP advocacy advisor, said he takes issue with the concept of qualified immunity.
“We feel no matter what job you have there is a level of accountability there, and you should be accountable for your actions," Randleman said.
Young also struck down claims of state law violations made by both Nazario and the officers' defenses, which included battery and assault, and false imprisonment.
Annie Lahren, attorney for Officer Crocker, called the judge's decision to grant qualified immunity, "very well reasoned and legally sound."
Young upheld the claim of illegal search under state law against Crocker but not Gutierrez.
Attorney Jonathan Arthur, who is representing Nazario, said they will proceed to trial on the claims of assault, battery, false imprisonment, illegal search under state law, and illegal search under the Fourth Amendment.
Here is the full statement issued by Lahren, attorney for Crocker:
Judge Young’s ruling granting qualified immunity to Officer Crocker and Officer Gutierrez on Caron Nazario’s core constitutional claims of unreasonable seizure, excessive force, and First Amendment violations is very well-reasoned and legally sound and we are confident that it will be upheld on appeal.
The opinion correctly states that the traffic stop and the commands given by Officers Crocker and Gutierrez were lawful and that Lt. Nazario repeatedly refused to comply. By refusing to follow commands and resisting the officers, Lt. Nazario’s own actions gave rise to the unfortunate, but lawful, escalation of force, and, 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.
Judge Young’s ruling on state law claims for assault, battery, and false imprisonment is in line with our expectations at this stage of the litigation as these present classic jury issues that are rarely decided at summary judgment. However, we firmly believe that Officer Crocker’s brief verification of the firearm in Nazario’s vehicle was reasonable and lawful under the circumstances of this case.
We reached out to an attorney for Officer Gutierrez, and we are still waiting to hear back.
Earlier this month, Hampton Commonwealth Attorney Anton Bell, the special prosecutor in this case, said the officers will not face criminal charges.
In the coming weeks, Randleman said the Isle of Wight NAACP will turn to the Department of Justice to open a federal civil rights case into the traffic stop and to seek a federal patterns and practices investigation into the Windsor Police Department.
"We are not in the business of taking down a specific officer," said Randleman. "We are in the business of taking down a systemic issue."