Recently released bodycam footage of a traffic stop in Virginia sparked nationwide controversy last week after an Army lieutenant was pepper sprayed by a police officer for refusing to exit his vehicle.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. district court, attorneys for the lieutenant claim the officers violated his civil rights when they threatened him with “riding the lightning” and sprayed him with pepper spray. But law enforcement professionals point out that the lieutenant didn’t immediately pull over when stopped by police, and he disobeyed dozens of direct orders to get out of the car and lie on the ground.
Second Lt. Caron Nazario was pulled over on December 5, 2020, when police failed to see the temporary license plate taped inside his tinted rear window, the lawsuit claims. After the officers turned on their emergency lights, Nazario drove for one minute and 40 seconds before pulling over in a gas station. Nazario claims he was trying to find a well-lighted place, and the officers admit in their report that he was driving at a low rate of speed with his turn signal on.
Body cam footage shows what happened next. One of the officers notifies dispatch that they are engaging in a “felony traffic stop,” and Officer Daniel Crocker can be heard yelling for Nazario to “put his hands out the window.” Both Crocker and the other officer, Joe Gutierrez, have drawn their service weapons, and they tell Nazario no less than 45 times to “get out of the car.”
Nazario keeps both of his hands outside of the car for much of the exchange, and he asks the officers repeatedly why he’s being pulled over and detained.
“What’s going on?” he asks at one point.
“What’s going on is you’re fixing to ride the lightning, son,” Gutierrez responds.
“What’s going on? What did I do? I did not commit any crime,” Nazario says.
When Gutierrez tells him that he’s being stopped for a traffic violation, Nazario claims he doesn’t have to get out of his vehicle. “It’s a traffic violation… I don’t have to get out. You haven’t even told me why I’m being stopped,” he says.
In his lawsuit, Nazario says he didn’t exit his vehicle because he was afraid of being shot by the officers. Before being pepper sprayed, Nazario says, “I’m honestly afraid to get out.”
“You should be,” Gutierrez responds.
When Nazario continues to not comply with his orders, Gutierrez holsters his taser (which he had exchanged for his handgun moments before) and pulls out his pepper spray. He sprays Gutierrez in the face and repeats his orders to get out of the car.
“I don’t even want to reach for my seatbelt,” Nazario says.
Eventually, Nazario unbuckles his seat belt, and officers force him to the ground. He was released without charges, though Nazario claims they threatened to destroy his military career if he spoke about the incident.
“There’s no need getting this on your record,” Gutierrez is heard saying in the bodycam footage. “If you want to fight it and argue … if that’s what you want, we’ll charge you, have you go to court, notify the commander, do all that,” Gutierrez said.
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Nazario’s attorneys argue that the incident is indicative of a larger trend of hostility among police officers towards black people
“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, (including issuing unreasonable comply-or-die commands,) ignore the clearly established mandates of the Constitution of these United States and the state and local laws, and usurp the roles of legislator, judge, jury, and executioner; substituting the rule of law for their arbitrary and illegal conduct,” the lawsuit says.
The Town of Windsor, Virginia, where the incident took place, announced this week that they have fired Gutierrez for his role in the incident. “It was determined that Windsor Police Department policy was not followed,” town official said in a press release, and “disciplinary action, and department-wide requirements for additional training were implemented beginning in January.”
The Virginia State Police have also opened an investigation into the incident, according to Windsor officials.
Former police officer Brandon Tatum broke down the incident in a recent video posted on his YouTube channel. Tatum points out that Nazario didn’t comply with multiple orders from officers, and the officers had a right to detain him for their own safety.