A federal trial began Monday in a civil lawsuit over a 2020 traffic stop in which an Afro Latino Army lieutenant was pepper sprayed and handcuffed by Virginia police.
Body camera video shows Windsor police officer Daniel Crocker and Joe Gutierrez, who was an officer at the time but has since been fired over the case, pepper sprayed and pointed their weapons at 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario as he held his hands up in his vehicle.
The stop sparked nationwide backlash and Virginia’s attorney general later sued Windsor, a small town about 70 miles southeast of Richmond, alleging the town’s police engaged in discriminatory policing against Black Americans.
In April 2021, Nazario filed the civil lawsuit against the officers for $1 million in compensatory damages. In August, a special prosecutor called the video of the stop “very disturbing and frankly unsettling,” but determined Gutierrez should not be criminally charged.
Here’s what to know about the case.
What happened during the traffic stop?
The officers said in a police report they pulled Nazario over on Dec. 5, 2020, because his new Chevrolet Tahoe didn’t have a rear license plate, although a temporary plate was displayed in the rear window, according to the lawsuit.
Nazario slowed down, drove for less than 2 minutes and eventually pulled over at a gas station because he wanted to find a safe, well-lit location, the suit said. Crocker described this in radio transmissions as “eluding police” and labeled it a “high-risk traffic stop,” according to police records included in the lawsuit.
Video shows Crocker and Gutierrez drew their weapons and approached Nazario, who was in uniform, sitting in his SUV. Nazario then held his hands outside the window and repeatedly asked why he was being stopped while officers told him to get out of the Tahoe.
“What’s going on is you’re fixin’ to ride the lightning, son,” Gutierrez said, a phrase which the suit claims is a reference to execution by the electric chair.
“I’m honestly afraid to get out,” Nazario said.
“Yeah, you should be,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez then pepper sprayed Nazario through the driver’s side window multiple times. After Nazario got out of the SUV, the officers forced him to the ground. According to the lawsuit, Gutierrez struck Nazario with his knee and the officers handcuffed him.
Crocker then searched the SUV, found a handgun and determined it was legally owned, according to the suit. The officers told Nazario they wouldn’t file criminal charges — which would harm his military career — if he would “chill and let this go,” according to the lawsuit.
What does the lawsuit say?
Nazario’s lawsuit claims he suffered physical injuries from the stop and has since developed anxiety, depression and PTSD.
“The officers involved not only assaulted Mr. Nazario, but pointed their weapons directly at him and, at some point during the encounter, threatened to kill him,” the suit alleges. “Mr. Nazario recalls that he thought he was going to die that evening.”
Nazario’s suit initially claimed the officers violated his constitutional rights against excessive force and unreasonable seizure, and his right to free speech.
U.S. District Judge Roderick C. Young limited the scope of Nazario’s lawsuit. Young ruled Nazario can argue he was assaulted, falsely imprisoned and that his vehicle was illegally searched, but federal immunity laws protect the officers from claims that they violated Nazario’s constitutional rights.
What do the police officers say?
Both Crocker and Gutierrez denied the claims in Nazario’s lawsuit in court filings, arguing their interactions with Nazario were reasonable and he had repeatedly refused to comply with their commands. Their attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY.
The officers also denied threatening to kill Nazario, saying the phrase “ride the lightning” was a reference to a stun gun, Crocker’s attorneys said in court documents.
Gutierrez was unaware Crocker searched the vehicle and therefore couldn’t have prevented it, according to court documents.
Anne C. Lahren, an attorney for Crocker, said in a statement to WTKR that Crocker’s search for the firearm was “reasonable and lawful,” after a judge ruled the officers had probable cause to pull Nazario over for an improperly displayed license plate and to charge him with eluding police, obstruction of justice and failure to obey.
“Lt. Nazario’s own actions gave rise to the unfortunate, but lawful, escalation of force,” Lahren said.
Contributing: The Associated Press; Marc Ramirez, USA TODAY
Contact Breaking News Reporter N’dea Yancey-Bragg at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg
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