An Army officer is asking for a new trial in a civil trial where he claims his human rights were violated by officers in Virginia who pepper sprayed him during a traffic stop. Though a federal jury sided with him, they granted him a substantially smaller award than he and his attorneys requested.
Tom Roberts, the lawyer for Second Lt. Caron Nazario, filed a motion for a new trial, stating that the verdict his client received from a federal jury on Tuesday, Jan. 16., was a “miscarriage of justice,” 13 News Now reports. His client received an award of less than $4,000 in their civil rights case victory, a little over .25 percent of their original request of a $1.5 million award.
Roberts contends not only is this an “insult” to the suffering Nazario experienced but it also sends a message to law enforcement about the court being easy on penalizing police when they behave poorly.
In August 2022, a federal judge ruled officer Daniel Crocker was liable for an illegal search of Nazario’s car that violated the soldier’s Fourth Amendment rights during that stop in late 2020. Crocker pulled Nazario over for having a permanent license plate on his vehicle. For the violation, the lieutenant was only awarded $1,000 in punitive damages.
The jury, however, only found Crocker’s then-fellow officer Joe Gutierrez liable for assault, requiring him to pay just $2,685 in damages, no malice, clearing him of all false imprisonment, illegal search and battery charges. Gutierrez was fired from the force in April 2021, the same month Nazario’s federal complaint was filed.
Nazario alleged in his lawsuit that on the night of the incident, he was driving on a dark but major road, but did not stop until he could see a well-lit spot, across from a gas station. When asked why he took the extra measure, he said he was “honestly afraid to get out.”
Gutierrez said in the body-camera video of the incident, “Yeah, you should be.”
Gutierrez then told Nazario, “You’re fixing to ride the lightning, son,” a reference to the complaint to allude to being killed. The officer maintained he meant he was going to tase him, before threatening to end his career in the military if he reported them.
The Army officer was pepper sprayed and then handcuffed and questioned as he waited for emergency workers to arrive to treat his eyes, the lawsuit states. While this was happening, he also recorded the incident on his cell phone and used this as evidence in his case.
At Tuesday’s hearings, the jurors awarded him $3,685 in relief — far less than the $1.5 million they petitioned for. Roberts said, according to The Washington Post, such a low award added: “insult to injury.”
Roberts believes the award sends the message that it is “unlikely” that officers demonstrating “this behavior” will receive “any meaningful consequences.”
Roberts said his client has to reject the award and start all over again if he wants justice and to expose how the system works.
“We’ve seen enough unrest, and the public has got to know that the system will work. This is significant, and a new trial is in order,” Roberts said.
Other aspects of the trial, outside of the money, the attorney believes are crucial for the new jury to understand is that Joseph Gutierrez, one of the police officers, was more at fault than this jury believed and that his client was more traumatized than an expert psychiatrist for the defense said.
“In this circumstance, with the assault that the jury found, it triggers the right for him to have that reasonable resistance to say, ‘I’m afraid to get out of the car and to stay in his car,’ ” Roberts said. “Therefore, everything they did after that point constitutes battery and assault.”
Regarding his PTSD, the doctor presented an obscure criterion to determine PTSD, anxiety and panic disorder.
“This is false evidence, and the verdict is based on that, and it should be set aside, and a new trial granted because of that,” Roberts said.
Outraged, the lawyer said not only was his client in shock after the 2020 altercation but so was the rest of the world.
“He was shocked, everybody was shocked, the nation was shocked,” he said.
Video canvassed the internet showing the ranking Army officer, in uniform, being pulled over in Windsor, Virginia. Part of its popularity, according to the original claim, was that no matter how decorated one might be, as a Black motorist you could be a victim of police misconduct.
According to police, one of Crocker’s lawyers, Anne Lahren, released a statement days after the verdict saying they were planning to file a motion in opposition to the new trial on the week of Jan. 23.
“A motion for a new trial seeks an extraordinary remedy reserved by the Courts for exceptional circumstances which are not present here,” Lahren said.
Lahren added, “Caron Nazario is unhappy with the jury’s verdict and seeks to blame the trial itself rather than the merits, or lack thereof, of his own claims. We firmly believe that the jury got it right with its verdict.”
Coreen Silverman, the attorney for Gutierrez, believes, “the jury did their job and did it well,” saying her client was “very grateful to the jury for taking the time to deliberate the evidence.”