Pepper-sprayed Black servicemember in Virginia files suit; officer fired

National

ISLE OF WIGHT, Va. (WAVY/AP) — A second lieutenant in the U.S. Army is suing two Virginia police officers over a traffic stop during which the officers drew their guns, pointed them at him and used a slang term to suggest he was facing execution.

One of the two Virginia police officers involved in the traffic stop of Army officer in uniform has been fired. A release from the local town manager stated that officer Joe Gutierrez was terminated following an internal investigation of the incident that occurred on Dec. 5.

Body camera footage shows 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario had his hands held in the air outside the driver’s side window as he told the armed officers, “I’m honestly afraid to get out.” One of the officers told Nazario, “Yeah, you should be!”

The officer then pepper-sprayed Nazario, exercised knee-strikes to his legs and placed him handcuffs.

The stop happened on a night in December after one of the two officers said Nazario’s SUV had tinted windows and didn’t have a rear license plate. Now, Nazario is asking for at least $1 million in damages and for the court to rule that the two officers violated his rights, including rights under the Fourth Amendment.

“This has got to stop,” said Jonathan Arthur, Nazario’s Richmond-based attorney who believes his client is a victim of police brutality.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Norfolk Federal Court April 2, said the incident occurred around 6:30 p.m. on December 5.

Nazario, who is currently stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia, was traveling with his dog in his newly purchased 2020 Chevrolet Tahoe West on U.S. 460 in the Town of Windsor when Officer Daniel Crocker initiated a traffic stop. In body camera video, Crocker said he could not see a visible rear license plate on Nazario’s SUV when he initiated the traffic stop. There was a temporary tag displayed in the tinted rear window.

The lawsuit said that after Crocker turned on his cruiser’s blue lights, Nazario traveled less than a mile and slowed down until he pulled into a BP gas station. Nazario later told the officers he wanted to stop in a well-lit area. By the time Nazario stopped in the gas station, a second officer, Gutierrez, had also arrived in his cruiser behind Crocker.

At that time, the officers decided to classify the traffic stop as “high risk” because, according to officer Crocker’s report on the stop, Nazario was “eluding police” and his SUV’s window tint prevented officers from seeing inside. Both Crocker and Gutierrez proceeded to get out of their cars, draw their guns and yell for Nazario to get out of the car and put his hands out the window.

Initially, Nazario, who is Black and Latino and was wearing his service uniform, turned on his cell phone camera to record the incident. He put at least one hand outside his driver’s side window after officers ordered him several times to do so. In video footage provided with the complaint, Crocker said “he’s not complying.”

As officers continued their orders and moved closer to the driver’s side window of Nazario’s vehicle, Nazario asked several times why he was being pulled over. He also asked what was going on. Gutierrez yelled at Nazario that he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” which the complaint states is an expression for execution.

Nazario remained in the SUV with his two hands out the window. His attorney said he was scared and also confused by conflicting directions from the two officers. Eventually, Crocker attempted to open Nazario’s door while he told him to “calm down.”

Gutierrez then told Crocker to back up and proceeded to deploy OC spray multiple times into Nazario’s face.

Nazario uttered several expletives and said he “can’t breathe” as Gutierrez demanded him to get out of his car. Nazario also expressed worry that his dog was “choking” from its kennel in the back of the SUV. Nazario eventually got out of the vehicle after he was OC sprayed. Once standing outside of the car, Gutierrez exercised knee-strikes and Crocker helped to eventually force Nazario to the ground and handcuff him.

EMS arrived soon after to administer aid to Nazario. As officers began to speak with him about the traffic stop, they asked if he had any weapons in his vehicle. Nazario said he did, and Crocker went into the vehicle to retrieve the gun, which Arthur, the attorney, contends was an illegal search.

He also said this was when the officers’ attitudes toward Nazario changed. “They knew they were in the wrong and they threatened to ruin the man’s career if he called them out on it,” Arthur said.

In body camera footage, Gutierrez told Nazario that if he had just complied he would have been “gone by now.”

Gutierrez then said that he had spoken with the chief of police—because Nazario had asked for a supervisor. Gutierrez said the chief confirmed Nazario didn’t have to be charged with obstruction of justice and not having license plates displayed. Instead, he could have the choice of the officers waiting with him while the effects of the OC spray wore off. At that time, when he was safe to drive, he would be free to go, Gutierrez said.

In body camera footage from Crocker, Nazario said nobody would choose charges.

BELOW: Body camera footage from Gutierrez

BELOW: Body camera footage from Crocker.

The lawsuit claims that Gutierrez said the charges could impact Nazario’s career with the Army. Arthur said this was threating retaliation if Nazario complained about the incident.

Arthur said Nazario’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated when officers exercised and “unreasonable use of force” and temporarily seized Nazario’s gun. He also said they violated the First Amendment by threating Nazario’s career if he complained.

While the lawsuit does not—and cannot—ask for disciplinary action against the officers, Arthur said there needs to be accountability. “After what I have seen on the body camera footage, it’s kind of hard to justify them serving and protecting anything,” Arthur said.

The lawsuit and videos have also now caught the attention of local civil rights groups. “We’re very concerned about what we’ve seen,” said Valarie Butler, president of the Isle of Wight chapter of the NAACP. “We’ve launched an investigation and you’ll definitely be hearing from us later.”

Politicians and celebrities from across the country have weighed in on the video.

The news that Gutierrez was fired comes hours after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the Virginia State Police to conduct an independent investigation into the incident.

In the release, officials say “the pursuit and ultimate stop which resulted in the use of pepper spray against Lt. Caron Nazario by Officer Gutierrez” required an internal investigation to determine the appropriateness of Gutierrez’s action. “At the conclusion of this investigation, it was determined that Windsor Police Department policy was not followed,” officials said. Windsor officials said they joined local officials in requesting the investigation by the Virginia State Police and called for a “full and complete review of the officers’ actions.”

The investigation resulted in disciplinary action and additional department-wide training, which began in January and is still ongoing, according to the release. “Rather than deflect criticism, we have addressed these matters with our personnel administratively, we are reaching out to community stakeholders to engage in dialogue, and commit ourselves to additional discussions in the future,” officials said.

In a statement released Sunday afternoon, Northam described the incident as “disturbing” and said that it angered him.

“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,” he said.

Northam ended his statement with an invitation for Nazario to meet and talk with the governor regarding the incident.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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