Guardsman rejected $150,000 settlement from Windsor officers, records show

Published 4:46 pm Friday, February 24, 2023

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The former Windsor police officer who held Virginia National Guard 1st Lt. Caron Nazario at gunpoint and pepper-sprayed him during a 2020 traffic stop offered a six-figure settlement 17 days ahead of the weeklong January trial that saw a jury award Nazario less than $4,000 in damages, court records show.

Joe Gutierrez, who was fired from Windsor’s police force in 2021 after videos of the traffic stop went viral on social media, offered the Black and Latino guardsman $100,000 on Dec. 22 to drop his lawsuit alleging racially-motivated “false imprisonment” and “assault and battery.” Daniel Crocker, another officer named in Nazario’s suit who remains on the force, offered Nazario an additional $50,000.

Nazario turned both offers down. On Jan. 17, after two days of deliberations, a U.S. District Court jury in Richmond found Gutierrez liable for assault – but not battery – and ordered that he pay Nazario $2,685. The jury ordered Crocker pay $1,000 in punitive damages, but no actual damages, for illegally searching Nazario’s car and briefly removing the guardsman’s firearm. 

Nazario had initially asked for $1 million. His attorney, Jonathan Arthur, had upped the ask to $1.5 million on Jan. 13, the final day of testimony.

Now, Arthur, Crocker’s attorney, Anne Lahren, and Gutierrez’s attorney, Coreen Silverman, are each citing the wildly lower-than-asked jury award to argue the opposing side should pay their court costs.

Had Nazario accepted the settlement, it would have amounted to well below what the guardsman has accrued in attorney fees to date. Arthur, on Jan. 31, filed for $52,692.25 in court costs and another $491,967.50 in attorney fees citing Federal Rule of Civil Procedure No. 54 and Title 42, Section 1988 of the U.S. Code, which allow the “prevailing party” to recover court costs and reasonable attorney fees.

Nazario, despite the low jury award, is still a prevailing party with regards to Gutierrez’s assault and the court’s decision last summer to declare Crocker’s search illegal, Arthur contends.

Lahren and Silverman filed their own court cost petitions a day later, on Feb. 1. Each cites Federal Rule of Civil Procedure No. 68, which states if awarded damages do not exceed a settlement offer rejected by the plaintiff, the defendant is allowed to recover costs.

Silverman filed for $27,367.41 in court costs on behalf of Gutierrez. Lahren filed for $24,307.12 on behalf of Crocker.

The latest post-trial legal battle comes as each party awaits U.S. District Court Judge Roderick Young’s ruling on Arthur’s Jan. 20 request that the court either overturn the jury verdict and enter judgment for Nazario, or grant a new trial on all claims excluding the assault and illegal search.

Crocker had pulled Nazario over on Dec. 5, 2020, 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, expired New York tag taped to the inside of his car’s window. Crocker said he didn’t see it and accused the lieutenant of eluding police for driving roughly a mile down Route 460 to a BP gas station before stopping.

The viral video footage shows the two officers exit their patrol cars with guns drawn and shout conflicting commands at Nazario to keep his hands out of his car’s window and exit the vehicle while the guardsman repeatedly asks, “What’s going on?” At one point, Gutierrez answers by telling Nazario he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” a phrase Nazario’s lawsuit contended was a colloquial reference to an execution but Gutierrez contended was a reference to a taser. Nazario then tells the officers he’s “honestly afraid to get out,” to which Gutierrez responds, “You should be.” Gutierrez eventually pepper-sprays Nazario multiple times and uses knee-strikes to force the lieutenant from his car.