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US army lieutenant files lawsuit against two Virginia police officers after controversial altercation

Pepper spray - Army officer

Caron Nazario, who is a lieutenant in the United States Army Medical Corps, was driving to Petersburg, Virginia, from a drill weekend on the night of December 5 when he noticed police lights flashing behind him.

Nazario says that he was too nervous to stop on a darkened road, so he drove about a mile to a gas station, pulled over and put his cellphone on his dashboard, according to a lawsuit and footage of the incident. After he pulls over, two Windsor police officers can immediately be heard yelling orders at Nazario. “Get out of the car,” one yells at him. Nazario remains seated and repeatedly asks why he was stopped and why the officers had their guns drawn. He shows his empty hands to the officers. “I’m honestly afraid to get out of the car,” says Nazario. “Yeah,” replies Joe Gutierrez, who is one of the officers, according to body camera footage. “You should be.”

Seconds later, Officer Gutierrez douses Nazario with pepper spray. Nazario keeps his hands in view as he coughs and pleads with the officers to undo his seatbelt and make sure that his dog is not choking in the back, with liquid from the pepper spray dripping down his hands and face. Lieutenant Nazario filed a lawsuit this month in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The lawsuit accuses officers of illegally searching his vehicle, using excessive force and violating his rights under the First Amendment. The lawsuit seeks $1 million in compensatory damages, according to the New York Times. Nazario has also accused the officers of threatening to destroy his military career by charging him with multiple crimes if he reported their misconduct, according to the complaint.

The police officers did not arrest Nazario and have not filed charges. According to a police report from the night of the incident, the officers said they pulled Nazario over because his SUV did not have license plates. Lieutenant Nazario says that he had recently bought a Chevrolet Tahoe and was waiting for license plates, but had taped temporary ones on the inside of the rear window and that the temporary plates were visible. The police report also alleged that Nazario had “willfully and wantonly disregarded” police lights and sirens before pulling over, and “was actively resisting” when Officer Crocker attempted to open the SUV’s driver-side door.

Lawyers for Nazario filed copies of footage from his cellphone and from police body cameras that showed both officers approaching his vehicle with their guns drawn. In the footage, Nazario can be heard saying, “I’m actively serving this country and this is how you’re going to treat me?” “What’s going on?” Nazario then asks. In response, Officer Gutierrez yells, “What’s going on is you’re fixing to ride the lightning, son.” After two volunteers from the town’s emergency medical service arrived, Crocker approached Lieutenant Nazario, who stood handcuffed near his vehicle, and asked why he had not complied with their “simple” demands.

“What would have been a two-minute traffic stop turned into all this,” Officer Crocker can be heard saying in the footage. “I’m not out to hurt you and I know you don’t want to hurt me.” Nazario said that he made a point of pulling over in well-lit areas in previous traffic stops. “I never looked out the window and saw guns blazing immediately,” he tells Crocker in the video. Gutierrez later told Nazario that his chief had given him the go-ahead to let him go as long as he did not “fight and argue.” Gutierrez also told the lieutenant that he would not have to write a summons for obstruction of justice and failure to display a license plate if Nazario would “chill and let this go,” and that the Army would have to be alerted if he did write a summons.

Lieutenant Nazario said he would be alerting his supervisors about the incident, to which Gutierrez replies, “I get it. The media spewing race relations between law enforcement and minorities, I get it.” Nazario’s lawyer, Jonathan Arthur, said that the lieutenant told his officers about the stop almost immediately. “He’s still really shaken up,” Arthur said. “He’s very, very worried about retaliation.” As of Monday, Officer Joe Gutierrez had been fired, Town Manager William Saunders told CNN. The officer, Daniel Crocker, is still employed by the police department, according to Saunders.

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ARTICLE: CHLOE CHANDLER

POLITICS EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE

PHOTO CREDITS: YAHOO

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