RICHMOND, Va. (AP/WRIC) — A lawsuit against a Virginia town that alleges its police department has operated in a way that led to unlawful racial discrimination and violated individuals’ constitutional rights can move forward, a judge ruled Thursday.
The State Suit
The Office of the Attorney General initially brought the lawsuit against the small southeastern Virginia town of Windsor in December, after an investigation prompted by a 2020 traffic stop involving two Windsor police officers and Caron Nazario, an Army lieutenant.
Video of the incident showed the officers drawing their guns, pointing them at Nazario, who is Black and Latino, and using a slang term to suggest he was facing execution before pepper-spraying him and knocking him to the ground. The video led to widespread outrage when it surfaced months later, after Nazario sued the two officers.
A judge on Thursday heard arguments in the state’s lawsuit before denying an attempt from the town to have the case dismissed, the Smithfield Times reported.
While the lawsuit was initially filed in the waning days of Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring’s term, Miyares — a Republican who took office in January — has continued to pursue it.
Miyares filed an amended complaint in August that substantially revised the claims made in the case. The lawsuit alleges the town’s police department “has engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct” that has deprived individuals of their rights, privileges or immunities under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It also says the department policed in a way that unlawfully discriminated on the basis of race, color or national origin.
In court documents, the town has said the state’s lawsuit refers only to one incident, Nazario’s traffic stop, and doesn’t establish that the town engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprived individuals of their rights.
The two officers involved in the stop are also facing an individual suit from Nazario, which is now headed for a jury trial on claims of assault, battery and unlawful imprisonment.
The judge has already ruled that Daniel Crocker illegally searched Nazario’s truck when he retrieved a handgun — which was legally owned by Nazario — and checked the serial number to see if it was stolen.
The remaining claims center on the officers’ actions after Nazario was pulled over. Over the course of their encounter, body cam footage shows that Nazario placed his hands out of the car window when ordered by the officers, but told Crocker he wouldn’t exit the vehicle because he was afraid. Crocker responded, “Yeah, you should be.”
The other officer, Gutierrez, then pepper sprays Nazario four times, after which he exits the vehicles, but will not get on the ground when ordered, offering no other resistance.
Gutierrez then knees Nazario twice, bringing him to the ground. That’s when medics arrive on the scene and treat Nazario for pepper spray exposure, and Crocker begins his illegal search of Nazario’s vehicle.
“We are pleased with the Court’s ruling today and have no further comment,” Victoria LaCivita, a spokesperson for Miyares, said in a statement to The Associated Press following Thursday’s ruling. Attorneys for the town did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Isle of Wight NAACP members told the TV station they were pleased to see Miyares push forward with the case.
“It is good to know that it is not about parties,” said Valerie Butler, president of the Isle of Wight NAACP.
The case has also spurred protests in Richmond, with many calling for an end to “qualified immunity” — the doctrine that police cannot be held accountable for illegal actions if they performed them in the reasonable belief that they were legal.
That effort ultimately failed in the General Assembly, but although the doctrine has barred Nazario from suing for violations of his free speech rights, the judge ruled that on the counts of assault and unlawful imprisonment, “the reasonableness of the Officers’ actions is a matter for a jury to decide.”