A U.S. Army 2nd lieutenant who was held at gunpoint, pepper sprayed and thrown to the ground by police officers during a traffic stop in Virginia is suing the two law enforcement officials involved.
Caron Nazario, a Black and Latino solider, had been dressed in his military fatigues when Windsor Police pulled over his SUV on Dec. 20 for what they believed was no rear license plate and tinted windows, according to the federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Norfolk and obtained by The Virginian-Pilot.
Nazario—who had recently purchased the vehicle and had a temporary cardboard plate in the window—drove for a short period of time before pulling the vehicle over in the lighted parking lot of a nearby gas station.
Windsor Police Officer Daniel Crocker, who initiated the stop, later described the interaction as a “high-risk traffic stop” and said Nazario had been “eluding police,” despite acknowledging the Army officer's low rate of speed, according to a report included with the filing.
Nazario had come to a stop in the gas station parking lot less than a mile and one minute and 40 seconds after Crocker had initially turned on his lights, according to CNN.
Upon hearing the call on the radio, a second officer, Joe Gutierrez, arrived to provide backup and both officers immediately pulled their guns and began shouting conflicting instruction at Nazario, who remained seated in the vehicle as he questioned why he'd been pulled over, according to the lawsuit.
Nazario told officers that he had not been trying to elude them but was stopping in a well-lit area “for officer safety and out of respect for the officers,” according to the Associated Press.
Viral body camera footage of the incident shows Nazario put his arms up as he was instructed to get out of his vehicle by the two officers.
“I am honestly afraid to get out,” Nazario can be heard telling the officers.
“Yeah, you should be!” one of the officers responds.
They continued to yell for him to get out of the car and began to pepper spray inside the car repeatedly as Nazario—who still had his arms up—said he didn’t “even want to reach for his seatbelt.”
“My hands are out, can you please—look, this is really messed up,” he said.
He also told officers that his dog, who had been in a cage in the back of the vehicle, was “choking” from the pepper spray, CNN reports.
Nazario got out of the SUV after noting that he was “reaching for my seat belt” and asked for a supervisor, but Gutierrez performed “knee-strikes” on his legs, pushing him to the ground, the suit alleges, according to the Associated Press.
The officers cuffed him and later opened a back window for the dog who was still trapped inside.
Nazario started filming the incident on his cell phone shortly after coming to a stop in the parking lot. His attorneys have argued that the footage, combined with the officers’ body camera footage of the incident, paint a disturbing picture.
“These cameras captured footage of behavior consistent with a disgusting nationwide trend of law enforcement officers, who, believing they can operate with complete impunity, engage in unprofessional, discourteous, racially biased, dangerous and sometimes deadly abuses of authority,” the lawsuit said.
Gutierrez later said that while Nazario’s desire to pull over in a well-lit area was “reasonable” and “happens all the time,” most often when the subject is a minority, the problem was that Nazario didn’t get out of the vehicle,
The lawsuit alleges that the officers realized they “had acted illegally” and told him if he “would chill and let this go” they would let him go without filing charges. They allegedly threatened however, that if Nazario refused, he could be charged with obstructing justice, eluding police and assaulting a law enforcement officer.
In his police report describing the incident, Gutierrez said they decided to release Nazario after considering several options, according to the Virginian-Pilot.
“The reason for this decision is simple; the military is the only place where double jeopardy applies. Meaning that whatever happened in civil court, the military could still take action against him. Being a military veteran, I did not want to see his career ruined over one erroneous decision,” he wrote.
Windsor Town Manager William Saunders told CNN that Gutierrez has been fired as a result of the incident.
“At the conclusion of this investigation, it was determined that Windsor Police Department policy was not followed. This resulted in disciplinary action, and department-wide requirements for additional training were implemented beginning in January and continue up to the present. Since that time, Officer Gutierrez was also terminated from his employment,” a statement released Sunday said.
Crocker remains employed with the department.
Windsor Police have yet to publicly comment on the lawsuit, however, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statement Sunday on Twitter.
“The incident in Windsor is disturbing and angered me—and I am directing the Virginia State Police to conduct an independent investigation,” Northam said. “Our commonwealth has done important work on police reform, but we must keep working to ensure that Virginians are safe during interactions with police, the enforcement of laws is fair and equitable, and people are held accountable.”
Oxygen.com reached out to Nazario’s attorney but did not receive an immediate response.