Nazario testifies in Windsor police lawsuit

Published 5:58 pm Friday, January 13, 2023

RICHMOND — The first day of Army Lt. Caron Nazario’s $1 million lawsuit against Windsor Police Officer Daniel Crocker and ex-officer Joe Gutierrez saw Nazario himself testify.

The federal case, which began Monday, Jan. 9, is set for a five-day jury trial in Richmond. Nazario, who is of Black and Latino descent, accuses the two white officers of racially motivated police brutality while holding him at gunpoint during a Dec. 5, 2020, traffic stop and shouting conflicting commands at him to keep his hands out of his car’s window and exit the vehicle. Video footage of the incident, which went viral in April 2021 and led to Gutierrez’s firing, culminates with Gutierrez repeatedly pepper-spraying Nazario and using knee strikes to force the lieutenant out of the car and onto the ground.

Crocker had pulled Nazario over for allegedly lacking a rear license plate. Gutierrez responded to the scene when Crocker reported a “felony traffic stop” to dispatchers. Nazario had a temporary New York plate taped to the inside of his car’s rear window, but Crocker said he didn’t see it and accused the lieutenant of eluding police for having driven roughly a mile down Route 460 to a BP gas station before stopping.

Nazario, now 29, was a 2nd lieutenant at the time of the traffic stop but has since been promoted to 1st lieutenant. He took the stand wearing his Army dress blues and told jurors he once considered becoming a police officer himself before joining the military, noting his grandmother, sister and aunt all pursued law enforcement careers.

Asked by his attorney, Jonathan Arthur, why he didn’t pull over immediately upon seeing the flashing blue lights of Crocker’s patrol car, Nazario testified that he initially thought Crocker was trying to pull someone else over, and had been trying to get out of Crocker’s way. Nazario then testified he wasn’t particularly familiar with the town of Windsor and didn’t see Farmers Bank or any other well-lit places to stop until reaching the BP on the opposite side of the highway.

Nazario testified he turned the engine of his then-new 2020 Chevrolet Tahoe off upon Crocker shouting for him to do so, and rolled his window down, expecting to see an officer approach. Instead, he saw Gutierrez and Crocker, both with their guns out.

“I was shocked” and “immediately concerned for my safety,” Nazario testified. That’s when he activated the video camera on his cellphone to record the encounter.

Arthur then showed jurors Nazario’s cellphone footage and video recorded by Crocker’s and Gutierrez’s body-worn cameras.

Asked by Arthur why he told the officers “I’m not getting out,” Nazario said he believed he would be “stepping right into danger” if he did so.

The body camera footage records Nazario repeatedly asking, “What’s going on?” Gutierrez at one point answers by telling Nazario he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” a phrase Nazario’s lawsuit contends is a colloquial reference to an execution. Nazario testified he didn’t hear the “ride the lighting” statement correctly, and thought he’d heard Gutierrez say “see the light,” which he took to mean death and the light of heaven.

Arthur then highlighted a small white rectangle visible in the body camera footage of both officers. Nazario identified it as his vehicle’s temporary New York plate.

Crocker has retained Anne Lahren of the Virginia Beach-based firm Pender & Coward. Gutierrez is represented by Jessica Swauger and Coreen Silverman of the Glen Allen firm Hancock, Daniel & Johnson.

On Jan. 10, day two of the trial, Nazario continued his testimony. He told jurors he’d been diagnosed with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

PTSD symptoms, according to the American Psychiatric Association, include nightmares or flashbacks, feeling detached or estranged. It can occur as a result of living through combat, rape, a natural disaster, historical trauma, domestic violence or bullying.

Nazario’s sessions with Sellman over a year have cost him a cumulative $16,000. Sessions with Utsey have cost a cumulative $7,000, Nazario testified.

On cross examination, SIlverman went after Nazario’s credibility, noting he’d been recorded telling the officers he was preparing in December 2020 to deploy to either Kuwait or Afghanistan. Arthur, given the opportunity to redirect, showed a Sept. 28, 2020, memorandum from Nazario’s Army command notifying him of a potential deployment to the Middle East in December 2021.

Crocker’s legal team then cross examined Nazario on why he didn’t stop at any closer businesses along Route 460, to which Nazario replied, “Nothing stood out to me” before arriving at the BP.

Prior to Nazario’s testimony, his lawyers and those representing Crocker and Gutierrez each made opening statements summarizing the evidence they planned to present throughout the week. Arthur used the opportunity to highlight an exchange between Nazario and Gutierrez, captured in the body camera footage, where Nazario says, “I’m honestly afraid to get out” and Gutierrez responds, “You should be.” The officers, Arthur argued, could have de-escalated the situation, “but they didn’t.”

Arthur then highlighted another exchange between Nazario and Gutierrez recorded on the body camera footage, in which the ex-officer gives Nazario a choice. “If you want to fight and argue … we’ll charge you,” Gutierrez had said, noting that charges would entail informing Nazario’s military command, or Nazario could avoid being charged if he would “chill” and “let this go.”

Silverman, who is herself Black and originally from Jamaica, contended in her opening remarks that Gutierrez’s “ride the lightning” remark was a reference to someone about to get hit with a taser. “Every story has two sides,” she noted, stating traffic stops are “high risk.” She also noted Nazario’s New York plate had expired two months prior to the incident.

Nazario’s driving a car with dark tinted windows, coupled with Gutierrez only having arrived after originally heading in the opposite direction until hearing Crocker’s “felony traffic stop” call, Silverman contended, meant there was no way for Gutierrez to know whether the car had been stolen or if it was carrying contraband. There was also no way for him to know Nazario’s race, that he was in the Virginia National Guard, or “why Nazario was not stopping.”

Richard Matthews, co-counsel to Lahren for Crocker, stated in his opening remarks that Nazario “didn’t suffer so much as a bruise” from his encounter with Gutierrez and Crocker, and characterized the officers’ reactions as “totally reasonable.”

Crocker, he noted, had been only six weeks out of the police academy at the time, and had been in field training under the supervision of Gutierrez.

Young ruled in August that Crocker’s removal of a firearm from Nazario’s car to check its serial number constituted an illegal search. As such, the jury will be tasked only with awarding damages for the search, as well as deciding whether either officer’s actions constituted “false imprisonment” and “assault and battery.” Matthews contended in his opening that any damages stemming from the search were “absolutely and totally minimal.”

Earlier Monday morning, the lawyers for the three involved parties worked with Young to narrow down a pool of 46 jurors to nine, only one of whom is Black.