An Army second lieutenant was driving his brand new car with his dog in the back seat when the night took a violent turn.
Moments later, the Black and Latino driver would be pepper-sprayed, threatened and thrown to the ground in a caught-on-video traffic stop that has sparked outrage across the country.
The military officer has now filed a lawsuit accusing two Virginia police officers of violating his constitutional rights by holding him at gunpoint, suggesting he was facing execution, assaulting him and illegally detaining him in a December 2020 encounter in the town of Windsor.
Newly released body-cam footage shows Caron Nazario, who was wearing his Army uniform that night, holding both of his hands in the air outside the driver’s-side window and telling the officers he was “honestly afraid to get out.”
“Yeah, you should be!” officer Joe Gutierrez told him as the two cops pointed their weapons at Nazario.
Moments earlier, that same officer was heard telling the driver that he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” an expression referring to an execution by electric chair, according to the lawsuit and a police video obtained by The Virginian-Pilot.
The two officers deny the allegations, claiming they stopped Nazario over his “extremely” dark tinted windows and because they couldn’t see his rear license plate. They also wrote in their incident reports that the driver was “eluding police,” repeatedly failed to comply with their commands to get out of the car and even slapped their hands away at one point.
Nazario, whose temporary license plate was posted in the rear window of his Chevrolet Tahoe, acknowledged he didn’t immediately pull over because he was trying to find a well-lit area for his and the officers’ safety. The lawsuit says he slowed down, activated his turn signals and drove for less than a mile until he found a BP gas station.
Gutierrez admitted during the encounter that driving to a well-lit area is a common maneuver that happens to him “a lot” and that he knew with “at least 80%” certainty that Nazario would be a person of color, according to the lawsuit.
The 27-year-old driver was released without any charges after Gutierrez decided he “did not want to see” Nazario’s military career “ruined over one erroneous decision,” according to a police report attached to the court filings.
The case has prompted accusations of racism and calls for the two officers to be fired.
“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 states.
Democratic politician and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro called for an immediate investigation into the incident.
“This is racism. It’s about the domination and humiliation of a Black man because he asked questions and ‘didn’t comply,’” he wrote in a tweet Friday night.
The shocking footage shows Nazario repeatedly asking why he was being pulled over as officers Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker were heard ordering him to get out of the car more than a dozen times. The officers also shouted conflicting orders at him, telling Nazario to keep his hands outside the window while also telling him to open the door and get out, according to the video and the lawsuit.
Gutierrez eventually pepper-sprayed Nazario multiple times, causing “substantial and immediate pain, choking and blinding him, causing his lungs and throat face and skin to burn,” the complaint alleges. The spray also hit Nazario’s dog, who began choking in the back seat, according to the suit.
When Nazario finally got out of the SUV, Gutierrez “responded with knee-strikes” to his legs as the Army lieutenant continued to ask why he was being detained and treated that way.
“Because you’re not cooperative. Get on the ground,” one of the cops responded.
“This is really messed up. This is f—ed up,” Nazario said in tears.
The body-cam footage stops soon after that. Gutierrez wrote in his report that his camera stopped recording after it got “compressed” between him and Nazario during a struggle. Nazario also recorded part of the incident from his cellphone.
The two cops later offered not to file any charges if Nazario agreed to “chill and let this go,” according to the lawsuit. If he didn’t agree, the complaint alleges, police would charge him with assault on a law enforcement officer, eluding an officer, obstruction of justice with force and improper display of license plate.
The lawsuit called the officer’s actions an “illegal” attempt to “extort silence” from Nazario.
The complaint, filed in federal court last week, accuses Gutierrez and Crocker of false imprisonment, illegal search, assault, battery and violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights. Nazario is seeking $1 million in damages.
Windsor Police Chief Rodney “Dan” Riddle, who also went to the gas station the night of the traffic stop, did not immediately return a request for comment Saturday morning.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Nazario’s attorney said his client graduated from Virginia State University and was commissioned out of the school’s ROTC program.
“He’s an officer in the United States armed forces,” Jonathan Arthur said. “These guys decide to do this to him… He’s definitely not doing too well.”
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