A U.S. Army officer is suing two Virginia police officers after a December traffic stop in which the officers drew and pointed their weapons, pepper-sprayed him and used a slang term to suggest he would face execution as he purposefully held both hands aloft in attempts to defuse the situation.
Police in Windsor, in southeast Virginia, have yet to issue any comment about the incident involving second lieutenant Caron Nazario, a Black and Latino man who was in uniform when officers ordered him to exit his Chevrolet Tahoe as he held his hands up through the driver’s side window outside a local gas station.
The lawsuit, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Norfolk and obtained by The Washington Post, alleges the officers violated Nazario’s constitutional rights during the stop and that the officers further threatened to destroy the lieutenant’s military career “with a series of baseless criminal charges” if he reported them for misconduct.
Video of the December 5 incident was captured by both officers’ body cameras and on Nazario’s cell phone, the suit said.
“What’s going on?” Nazario asked the officers, who shouted at him to get out of the SUV as they approached, guns drawn.
“What’s going on is you’re fixin’ to ride the lightning, son,” one replied, using a slang term for the electric chair in a line from the film, “The Green Mile.”
“I’m honestly afraid to get out,” Nazario told the officers.
“Yeah, you should be!” one retorted.
Jonathan Arthur, Nazario’s attorney, told the Associated Press the Virginia State University graduate was on his way home from his duty station when the incident occurred.
“He’s definitely not doing too well,” he said, asked about Nazario’s condition.
In his report, included in the court filing, Windsor police officer Daniel Crocker had reported encountering a vehicle with tinted windows and without a rear license plate, describing it in radio transmissions as “eluding police” and labeling it a “high-risk traffic stop.”
According to the suit, Nazario explained at the time that he had slowed down wasn’t attempting to elude the officer but instead looking for an illuminated location “for officer safety and out of respect for the officers.”
His newly purchased Tahoe was so new that he had temporary cardboard tags displayed in both the rear and passenger windows, the suit said.
A second officer, Joe Gutierrez, was in the vicinity when Crocker’s call went out and opted to join the stop. Arthur said Gutierrez told him that Nazario’s choice to continue to a well-lit area is not uncommon, “and 80% of the time, it’s a minority,” he quoted the officer as saying.
Thought Nazario’s rear plate became visible under the glare of the fuel station, the suit says Crocker and Gutierrez immediately left their squad cars and drew their weapons, attempting to extract Nazario from his SUV as he held his hands high and repeatedly asking what he had done wrong.
The footage shows Gutierrez pepper-spraying Nazario several times as the officers continue to order him to remove his seat belt and exit his vehicle.
His eyes shut in pain as he resisted the impulse to wipe them, Nazario told the officers: “I don’t even want to reach for my seatbelt – can you please…. My hands are out, can you please – look, this is really messed up,”
After Nazario eventually climbed out of the car, he was brought down with “knee strikes” as he continued to ask for a police supervisor, the lawsuit said, then struck several times and handcuffed.
The officers searched the SUV, where they found a handgun, but replaced it after determining it was legally owned.
The suit said that after questioning Nazario, the officers threatened to derail his military career “knowing the harm criminal charges would cause him” and told him they would refrain from filing charges if he would “chill and let this go.”
According to the suit, the officers altered or omitted details about the stop in their subsequent reports.
“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 said.
Both officers still work for the department, Windsor’s town manager told The Virginian-Pilot. USA TODAY attempted to contact Windsor police, who did not answer a call. A voicemail reported the mailbox as full.
Contributing: The Associated Press