Caron Nazario was driving his brand new SUV through the town of Windsor last December when he saw a police cruiser signal for him to pull over.
The Army second lieutenant slowed down on U.S. Route 460, flipped on his turn signal, and looked for a lighted place to pull over because it was dark outside, according to a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Norfolk.
Less than a mile away, Nazario saw a BP gas station. He drove his Chevrolet Tahoe into the parking area and stopped, the lawsuit said.
In the meantime, Windsor Police Officer Daniel Crocker radioed he was attempting to pull over a vehicle with no rear license plate and tinted windows. He said the driver was “eluding police” and he considered it a “high-risk traffic stop,” according to a report he submitted afterward and was included in the court filing. The written report acknowledged, however, that the SUV was traveling at a low rate of speed.
Another officer, Joe Gutierrez, was driving by when he heard Crocker’s call, saw him attempting to pull the vehicle over, and decided to join the traffic stop. What happened after that has been disputed by the officers and Nazario.
But the police officers’ own body cam footage — and a cellphone recording made by Nazario — back up the Army lieutenant’s version of events, according to his attorney, Jonathan Arthur of Richmond.
“It’s all right there in the footage,” the attorney said.
Arthur said the lawsuit was filed in federal court because it alleges Nazario’s constitutional rights were violated. Windsor Police Chief Rodney “Dan” Riddle did not respond to a request for comment.
Windsor is a small town in Isle of Wight County, with a population of just 2,700. Crocker and Gutierrez still work for the department, according to the town manager, and are the only named defendants in the lawsuit. Neither could be reached for comment.
According to the lawsuit, when the two officers got out, they immediately drew their guns and pointed them at Nazario — who is Black and Latino and was dressed in uniform — as he sat in his SUV.
And while Crocker had radioed he was pulling the vehicle over for not having a license plate, his body cam showed there was a cardboard license plate typically used on new cars posted in the rear window, the complaint says.
The officers shouted conflicting orders at Nazario, telling him to put his hands out the window while also telling him to open the door and get out, the lawsuit says. At one point, Gutierrez told Nazario he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” a reference to the electric chair, according to the claim.
Nazario repeatedly asked what was going on but got no response. Frightened and unsure what to do, he told the officers he was scared to get out.
Gutierrez then responded, “Yeah, you should be,” the complaint said.
The officers then attempted to pull Nazario out of the vehicle. When the 27-year-old asked that they call a police supervisor, Gutierrez stepped back and pepper sprayed Nazario multiple times, the lawsuit says.
The chemical temporarily blinded Nazario and caused a burning sensation in his lungs, throat and skin. Nazario’s dog was in a crate in the back and also started to choke.
Nazario got out of the vehicle and again asked for a supervisor. Gutierrez responded with “knee-strikes” to his legs, knocking him to the ground, the lawsuit says. The two officers struck him multiple times, then handcuffed and interrogated him, the complaint says.
Gutierrez wrote in his report that his body cam video stopped recording when it was compressed between him and Nazario during a struggle.
Crocker opened the windows and tailgate of the SUV after Nazario expressed concern about his dog.
When Nazario told the officers he waited to pull over until he could get to a well-lit area, Gutierrez said that was “reasonable,” the claim states. The officer also said it “happens all the time” and that “80% of the time it is a minority” who waits to get to a lit area.
Gutierrez told Nazario the problem was that he refused to exit the vehicle, according to the claim, and threatened to charge him with obstructing justice, eluding police and assaulting a law enforcement officer.
“Realizing that they had acted illegally,” the lawsuit says, the officers told Nazario that if he “would chill and let this go,” they would release him without filing any charges. But if he fought it, which Gutierrez acknowledged he had the right to do, Nazario would be charged and would have “to go to court and notify his command.”
Afterwards, the two officers filed reports with “near identical” misstatements, the lawsuit says.
They reported that Nazario refused to show his hands and slapped theirs away when they tried to get him out. Gutierrez wrote that he gave knee strikes to Nazario’s legs because he wouldn’t get on the ground and resisted arrest.
Medics were called and treated Nazario at the scene. The police chief also came and was briefed as to what happened, the report said.
Gutierrez wrote in his report that he felt he had two options: charge Nazario with obstruction, eluding, and assaulting an officer, or release him without any charges.
“I made the decision to release him without any charges,” his report said. “The reason for this decision is simple; the military is the only place where double jeopardy applies. Meaning that whatever happened in civil court, the military could still take action against him. Being a military veteran, I did not want to see his career ruined over one erroneous decision.”
Crocker’s report also states that he chose not to file any charges because Nazario was active duty military, up for promotion, and the officer didn’t want to see his career ruined for “poor judgment.”
The lawsuit argues the officers didn’t have probable cause to charge Nazario with any crimes, the stop was illegal and that the officers threatened to ruin the Army officer’s military career to cover their own misdeeds.
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