A traffic stop drew outrage around the country when two Windsor, Virginia, police officers pulled over an Afro-Latino U.S. Army veteran in December 2020. Guns drawn, they pepper sprayed him and allegedly assaulted him.
Officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker pulled over 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario while he was in uniform on the evening of Dec. 5, 2020. Body camera footage showed Gutierrez pepper spray Nazario when he would not get out of the car.
"Can you please relax?" Nazario said to the officers while sitting in his car, bodycam footage showed. "Get out of the car now!" Gutierrez said and proceeded to pepper spray Nazario in the face just after the lieutenant explained that he was actively serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Nazario is suing both officers in federal court for a total of $1 million, claiming they violated his constitutional rights, assaulted him, falsely imprisoned him and had his car illegally searched. The trial will begin on Monday in Richmond, Virginia.
In response to the federal lawsuit, the police officers deny the allegations against them in a court filing.
In the police report, one of the officers wrote that Nazario eluded police because he didn't stop right away. Nazario stated that he wanted to pull over in a well-lit area.
"I'm honestly afraid to get out," Nazario said during the traffic stop. "Yeah, you should be," Gutierrez replied.
Police said they pulled him over for not having a visible rear license plate, but in the footage, a temporary license plate can be seen in the rear window of Nazario's then-new SUV. Nazario was not charged in the incident.
The Windsor Police Department announced in 2021 that they fired Gutierrez, who pepper sprayed Nazario, for not following department policy during the incident. Some are calling it an example of excessive use of force by the police toward people of color.
"It is my estimation that the force that the police officer used against Mr. Nazario was excessive," Marquez Claxton, director of public relations and political affairs of the Black Law Enforcement Alliance, said. "And it was not commensurate with the level of what, even if he perceived it to be, some sort of resistance or defiance. His level of force did not match that."
In addition to Nazario's federal lawsuit, the state attorney general filed a lawsuit against the town of Windsor, alleging in part, that its police department's operations led to discrimination against African Americans.
An attorney for the town tried to get the lawsuit dismissed. According to the police chief, the department practices non-discriminatory policing.
The judge's ruling stated that Nazario's federal lawsuit would move forward.
"What we're going to see at trial is the defense is going to put forth the training, the fact that he did not exit the vehicle," Channa Lloyd, criminal attorney and managing partner of the Cochran Firm, said of Nazario's lawsuit. "They're going to be looking to reinforce this idea that these officers were simply following their department's procedures and policies.
"What we're going to see coming forth from the plaintiff is that this was a violation of his civil rights," Lloyd said. "That this was excessive force use and that this should not have happened in the manner that it did."
According to the court filing, officer Crocker's legal team said that "contact with Nazario was within justifiable bounds in performance of his duties as a law enforcement officer."