One of two police officers accused of assaulting a Black Army officer during a traffic stop has been fired. Black and Latino second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps Caron Nazario has filed a lawsuit against two Virginia police officers he accused of pointing their guns at him before pepper-spraying and striking him during a violent traffic stop in Windsor on December 5.
According to Vice, Nazario was headed home from work in his new Chevy Tahoe vehicle when he was ordered to pull over by one of the officers. The tense and physical encounter, which was filmed by Nazario and also captured on body camera footage, ended with the army officer needing medical attention.
Per footage of the incident, Nazario could be heard asking the officers what the issue was on several occasions when he was ordered to step out of the vehicle. And despite informing them he was scared of exiting the car, one of the officers could be heard telling him, “Yeah, you should be.”
During the encounter, the officers, identified as Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker, also allegedly threatened to charge Nazario with a slew of possible career-jeopardizing offenses including obstruction, eluding, and assault on a law enforcement officer if he complained. The army officer, who was in his uniform at the time of the arrest, is accusing the officers of violating his constitutional rights under the Fourth and First Amendments. His attorney also said his client believes the violent encounter was racially motivated.
“He’s a sworn member of the United States Army. He swears an oath to support to defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies foreign and domestic—and the way these officers behaved, this implicates the oath that he takes,” Nazario’s attorney, Jonathan Arthur, said, according to Vice.
According to the lawsuit, the December 5 incident occurred after Nazario was flagged to pull over for allegedly driving with a dark window tint and without a rear license plate. As he had just recently purchased the SUV, the lawsuit reportedly states Nazario was using temporary tags as he was yet to obtain a permanent one. Nazario also displayed the temporary plate inside the rear windscreen of the SUV. The police camera footage of the incident reportedly showed the tags were visible.
After Nazario was flagged to stop, he decided to drive a bit further and park at a well-lit nearby BP gas station. That took around a minute and 40 seconds after Crocker had ordered him to stop, according to the lawsuit. Because the plaintiff did not immediately pull over, the officers, in a report, alleged he was “eluding police” and as such, handled the incident as a “felony traffic stop” – meaning they deemed it risky, Vice reported. The lawsuit, however, states that one of the officers admitted they knew why Nazario decided to drive to the gas station as it was a tactic people of color frequently used during traffic stops.
Footage of the incident showed the officers ordering Nazario to put his hands up and step out of the vehicle among other instructions when he parked at the gas station. During the confrontation, Nazario was also heard asking the officers what was going on. The lawsuit reportedly alleges the officers were not “willing or able to articulate why they had initiated the traffic stop.” And after Nazario failed to exit the vehicle after he was ordered to do so, Gutierrez told the army officer he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning.”
“This is a colloquial expression for an execution, originating from glib reference to execution by the electric chair,” the lawsuit reportedly states. Things quickly escalated and besides allegedly threatening Nazario, the officers also pepper-sprayed him and struck him in his legs with their knees after he exited the vehicle. The incident left the army officer in tears. The lawsuit also states Nazario’s vehicle was searched “without permission or authority.” After Crocker found a firearm in the vehicle, he allegedly “radioed the serial number back to dispatch to see if the firearm was stolen.”
During interrogation at the scene of the arrest, the lawsuit alleges the officers gave Nazario an ultimatum. The officers allegedly told him they would allow him to walk away free without charging him if he would “chill and let this go” or slap him with charges that could jeopardize his military career if he did not cooperate. He was eventually released without charges.
Meanwhile, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued a statement Sunday saying he had directed the state police to conduct an independent investigation into the incident. “The incident in Windsor is disturbing and angered me,” he said.
Hours after, Windsor officials said in a statement that an internal investigation determined that department policy was not followed and one of the officers, Gutierrez, has since been fired.