Test of state law on police discrimination to proceed

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 10/13/2022, 6 p.m.
The Town of Windsor is set to become a test case for a state law that bars localities from engaging …

The Town of Windsor is set to become a test case for a state law that bars localities from engaging in a “pattern of discriminatory policing” affecting Black people and allows the Attorney General’s Office to take action to end such practices.

Rejecting arguments from the town’s attorneys, retired Virginia Beach Circuit Court Judge H. Thomas Padrick Jr. ruled Oct. 6 that the precedent-setting case the state has brought can proceed.

A date has not been set for the trial in the Circuit Court of Isle of Wight County in which Windsor is located.

The case stems from a traffic stop that two Windsor police officers initiated Dec. 5, 2020, against Black Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario for allegedly not having a visible rear license plate.

He pulled into a gas station and the officers pointed guns at the military officer and pepper-sprayed him, though the officers, Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker, released him without any charges after searching his car without a warrant or Lt. Nazario’s consent.

The case drew widespread attention, and a federal lawsuit from Lt. Nazario resulted in a judicial finding in August that his rights were violated and that a jury would decide damages and state law issues.

Separately, in the wake of the traffic stop, then Democratic Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring launched an investigation and filed suit against the town in December 2021 after losing his bid for re-election under the new Virginia Public Integrity and Law Enforcement Misconduct Act.

New Republican Attorney Gen. Jason S. Miyares has won applause from the state NAACP for continuing the suit and amending it to add three claims that the town and its officers deprived Lt. Nazario and others of their rights under the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments.

According to the original filing, Black drivers accounted for 42 percent of the traffic stops in Windsor between July 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021, though, Black residents account for only 21 percent of

the town’s population and just 22 percent of the county’s population.

The complaint also alleged that Windsor police conducted more searches of stopped vehicles with Black drivers than those of white drivers.

The complaint also alleged that Windsor’s Police Department without explanation reported fewer traffic stops to the State Police’s record system than to the town council and claimed that town officers were “trained to ‘go fishing’” and engage in stops to engage in illegal searches for contraband.

In court, the town’s legal team focused on Lt. Nazario’s case and argued that it was one incident and thus could not be used to show a discriminatory pattern and practice.

But Judge Padrick found that lawyers with the attorney general had sufficiently argued that the case they were bringing went beyond the Lt. Caron Nazario incident and deserved to go to trial.