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Jury sides with Virginia police officers who pepper-sprayed uniformed Army lieutenant

One of the police officers was later fired.
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Bodycam footage from a traffic stop in Virginia in December 2020 appears to show a police officer named Joe Gutierrez pepper-spray U.S. Army 2nd Lieutenant Caron Nazario, who had his hands up at the time. (Screenshot via Windsor Police Department footage/YouTube/The Virginian-Pilot)

An Army lieutenant who sued two police officers for pointing their weapons, pepper spraying him and taking him to the ground during a 2020 traffic stop that gained national notoriety has won just a fraction of the $1 million in damages that he sought.

2nd Lt. Caron Nazario filed his lawsuit in April 2021 against two police officers in Windsor, Virginia: Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker.  Nazario argued that on Dec. 5, 2020, the two officers had illegally detained him and then lied about their actions in official reports about the incident. Nazario also accused Gutierrez, who was later fired by the Windsor Police Department, of threatening to kill him.

On Tuesday, a jury largely absolved Gutierrez and Crocker for their conduct during the traffic stop. Jurors found that Crocker should pay $1,000 “to serve as an example to prevent others from acting in a similar way,” and Gutierrez should pay $2,685 in damages for assaulting Nazario, court records show.

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When asked about the verdict, Jonathan Arthur, one of Nazario’s attorneys, said that the jury had “got it wrong,” adding that his client would seek a new trial.

Arthur also said he has no idea how jurors arrived at their decision to award Nazario so little in damages.

“I think we were all kind of shocked,” Arthur told Task & Purpose.

Coreen Silverman, one of Gutierrez’s attorneys, said that Nazario was driving with expired New York transit tags when he was pulled over. 

Moreover, Nazario drove past several well-lit areas where he could have pulled over before finally stopping at a gas station on the left-hand side of the road, Silverman told Task & Purpose on Thursday. Video footage of the arrest also shows that Nazario repeatedly refused to get out of his SUV despite being ordered to by the police officers.

Rick Matthews, who represented Crocker, said the verdict in the case shows the jury rejected almost all the allegations Nazario had made in his lawsuit after seeing “the full picture.”

“The full picture was not what was put forward in the public by the plaintiff and the blitz when this case was first filed,” Matthews told Task & Purpose. “The entire factual story was what was presented to the jury over the course of a weeklong trial, and the jury came back and – to almost every extent – exonerated the conduct of the police officers.”

On the night of the incident, Nazario was driving his recently purchased Chevrolet Tahoe which did not yet have permanent license plates, according to his lawsuit. Nazario’s attorneys said he had temporary cardboard license plates taped inside his SUV, but Silverman said evidence showed that was not true.

After Crocker turned on his police car’s emergency lights, Nazario decided to drive to an area that was better lit before stopping his SUV, the lawsuit says. He ended up driving for about 1 minute and 40 seconds until he found a gas station that was less than a mile away.

Even though Nazario had eventually pulled over, the two police officers treated the incident as a “high risk traffic stop” and “felony traffic stop,” according to Nazario’s lawsuit.

What happened next was caught on video by Gutierrez and Crocker’s body cameras as well as Nazario’s cell phone camera.

Video from Gutierrez’s body camera shows that the police officers told Nazario both to get out of the car and to keep his hands out of the window, which Nazario’s lawsuit described as “inconsistent demands.”

When Nazario asks the police officers what is going on, Gutierrez replies, “What’s going on is you’re fixin’ to ride the lightning, son.”

Nazario’s attorneys argued in his lawsuit that the term “ride the lightning” is widely understood as a euphemism for being put to death in the electric chair, so Nazario was afraid that Gutierrez was threatening to kill him. However, Gutierrez’s attorneys later argued that he meant he was willing to use his Taser to subdue Nazario.

The body camera footage shows that Nazario was wearing his camouflage Army uniform and had his hands out of the window of his SUV as he tells the two officers, “I’m honestly afraid to get out.”

“Yeah, you should be,” Gutierrez responds.

A few moments later, Nazario tells the police officers, “I’m actively serving this country and this is how you’re going to treat me?”

Gutierrez then tells Crocker to back out of the way and pepper sprays Nazario at least four times.

In his lawsuit, Nazario’s attorneys noted that his dog in the SUV’s back seat was choking from the pepper spray.

Gutierrez’s body camera video shows that Nazario asked the police officers to take his seatbelt off so he could get out of his SUV. He explained that he did not want to lower his hands after being pepper sprayed.

“What are you: A specialist, corporal – what are you?” Gutierrez asks.

“I’m a lieutenant,” Nazario replies with his eyes shut from the pepper spray.

Nazario takes his seatbelt off and gets out of the SUV, after which both officers grab him. In Nazario’s lawsuit, his attorneys pointed out that Gutierrez hit him in the knee to force him to the ground.

While Nazario was in handcuffs, he was asked if he had a gun in his vehicle and he said yes, according to his lawsuit. Crocker found the firearm and verified that it was not stolen.

After this story was first published, Arthur told Task & Purpose that his client had a concealed carry permit from Virginia and that his “lawfully purchased and lawfully concealed” weapon was in the center console of his vehicle, but police were unaware of the firearm until Nazario told them about it.

When video of Nazario’s arrest circulated online in April 2021, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston tweeted that Nazario had represented the Army well by remaining calm and professional during the encounter.

“Situations like this are what I want Soldiers to discuss,” Grinston tweeted. “This is the reality that some of our Soldiers still face. As a Leader, you should know that and be willing to have conversations about how events like this impact your teams.”

Update: 1/19/2023; This article was updated after publication with additional context from 2nd Lt. Caron Nazarios lawyer, Jonathan Arthur, regarding the Dec. 5, 2020 traffic stop.

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