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Army officer pepper sprayed by police gets less than $4,000 in million-dollar lawsuit

Posted at 9:26 AM, Jan 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-18 09:26:43-05

RICHMOND, Va. — An Army Lieutenant who asked a jury to send a message to every single police officer in the United States that the way two officers treated him during a traffic stop was unacceptable did not get the vindication he had hoped for.

Army Lt. Caron Nazario was suing officers Joseph Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker for $1.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages following a traffic stop that happened two years ago.

Just before 3 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, the jury delivered a verdict that did not align with that monetary amount.

Instead, ordering Crocker to pay Nazario $1,000 for the search of his vehicle, which a judge had already ruled was illegal, and Gutierrez to pay him $2,685 in damages for assault.

"We are pleased the jury determined there are certain things they would not tolerate. Obviously, we are disappointed they determined there are things that they would," Jonathan Arthur, an attorney with Thomas H. Roberts and Associates who represented Nazario said.

The jury came to its decision unanimously, and jurors were given free rein as to how much money they wanted to award Nazario if they felt the officers had assaulted, battered, falsely imprisoned, or illegally searched his car.

"Thank you for a job well done, well-reasoned. They took a lot of time with this decision. They took half a day on Friday, they took the better part of the day today," Richard Matthews, an attorney with Pender Coward who represented Crocker said.

Nazario's lawyers had argued that he was assaulted and falsely imprisoned when he was pepper sprayed, struck and handcuffed during the December 2020 traffic stop.

They said Crocker acted unreasonably by assuming Nazario was preparing to ambush him after he initiated his siren and lights over a missing license plate.

Because of that assumption, Crocker termed the stop a felony traffic stop and immediately pulled his gun on Nazario when Nazario stopped at a gas station.

Arthur argued that Nazario was too scared to get out of the vehicle and comply because weapons were drawn at him and because Gutierrez told him he was "fixin' to ride the lightning" and should be scared to get out.

"So, the jury basically said the way Crocker handled the stop and pulled the deadly force right off the bat was acceptable, so what should people do in the future?" CBS6 reporter Melissa Hipolit, who covered the case in its entirety, asked Arthur.

"Right, that is a good question, but apparently this particular jury determined that was not excessive under the circumstances," Arthur replied.

Those circumstances, which were argued by lawyers for the defendants, involved Nazario driving 1.1 miles after Crocker initiated his lights and sirens and failing to pull over at a number of other potential places, Nazario not having a rear license plate, Nazario having an expired temporary tag in his tinted rear window, and Nazario driving a new SUV.

Crocker had testified that he thought the vehicle might be carrying drugs or contraband.

During the trial, Arthur also said the use of OC spray on Nazario and the knee strikes that Officer Gutierrez delivered were unreasonable uses of force that constituted assault and battery.

But lawyers for Gutierrez argued they were necessary because Nazario refused to comply with the officers' commands to get out of the car.

A psychologist and psychiatrist who are treating Nazario both told the jury he had PTSD and an anxiety disorder resulting from the incident. However, a psychiatrist who testified for the defendants said she did not believe Nazario had any psychiatric conditions, and instead suffered a "narcissistic injury' or bruised ego.

Nazario's attorneys said they believe there were appealable issues in this case and they will take them up with the court. Nazario told reporters he would prefer to comment on the verdict at a later date.

Attorneys for the officers said the jury's decision showed the officers' actions were generally reasonable.

"The jury had the opportunity to view the massive videotapes, three of them, one from the point of himself, two from the police officers, and go through every alleged tort that we were challenged and the only thing they found was an assault with a very minimal amount of damages against Officer Gutierrez. And against our client, Officer Crocker, $1,000 in damages for the search, which we admitted, he didn't follow the proper procedure," attorney Richard Matthews said. "We feel the verdict was fair, it was courageous on the part of the jury, given the political climate. And we're very pleased."

"What's your advice to drivers coming out of this?" Hipolit asked Matthews.

"Obey the law when a policeman falls in behind you and puts his blue lights on. Pull over then cooperate. Don't refuse to get out of the car if asked to get out of the car," Matthews replied.

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.