Caron Nazario was driving his newly purchased Chevy Tahoe home when two police officers pulled him over in Windsor, Virginia, whipped out their guns, and started barking orders.
With their weapons raised, the officers demanded that Nazario, a Black and Latino man, get out of the SUV. Nazario looked in the mirror and saw he was being held at gunpoint, then placed his cellphone on his dashboard to film the December 5 encounter. He repeatedly asked to know what was going on. At one point, he even admitted to being afraid to leave the vehicle.
“Yeah, you should be,” one of the officers responded.
Nazario, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, was coming home from work and in full uniform at the time.
“I’m serving this country, and this is how I’m treated?” Nazario told the officers, according to his cellphone video.
By the end of the incident, the cops would threaten Nazario, pepper-spray him in the face, and knee-strike him in the legs, according to body camera footage, Nazario’s cellphone video, and legal filings. Later, when Nazario was in tears and on the ground of a gas station parking lot as officers put him in handcuffs, he repeated, “This is fucked up, this is fucked up.”
The officers allegedly told Nazario if he were to complain, they’d charge him with crimes like obstruction, eluding, and assault on a law enforcement officer—potentially destroying his military career.
But now Nazario has a lawyer. And he sued the two Windsor police officers, Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker, on April 2, alleging violations of his constitutional rights under the Fourth and First Amendments.
“He’s a sworn member of the United States Army. He swears an oath to support to defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies foreign and domestic—and the way these officers behaved, this implicates the oath that he takes,” said Jonathan Arthur, an attorney for Nazario.
Arthur said Nazario thinks he was racially profiled. His hope with the lawsuit is to hold the officers accountable and send a message to other law enforcement officers “that this type of behavior will not be tolerated,” Arthur said.
The Windsor Police Department and Gutierrez did not immediately respond to VICE News’ requests for comment. Contact information for Crocker wasn’t immediately available.
The incident ostensibly began after an officer believed Nazario was driving on U.S. Route 460 without a rear license plate, according to the lawsuit. While the SUV was new to Nazario, meaning he hadn’t gotten permanent plates yet, he still had a temporary plate taped to the inside of his rear window, the lawsuit notes. The temporary tags are visible in the body camera footage.
Nazario slowed down his vehicle within seconds of the police pursuing him and activated his turn signal. Because it was dark, Nazario also drove for less than a mile—below the posted speed limit—until he reached a well-lit BP gas station, where he pulled over. In all, it took about 1 minute, 40 seconds for Nazario to pull over after Crocker initiated the stop, according to the lawsuit.
Still, the cops claimed in a report Nazario was “eluding police,” had a dark window tint, and lacked plates, so officers treated the incident as a “felony traffic stop,” or a traffic stop they believed to be risky. One of the officers admitted later that they knew why Nazario had pulled into the BP—it happened all the time, and was a maneuver often used by people of color, according to the lawsuit.
Once he was in the BP parking lot, Nazario was ordered to put his hands out of his car window and turn the vehicle off, according to body camera footage. He was also ordered to get out of the vehicle multiple times by both officers as he asked, “What’s going on?”
The officers were not “willing or able to articulate why they had initiated the traffic stop,” according to the lawsuit. Gutierrez told Nazario, who did not immediately get out of the car despite repeated orders to do so, that he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” according to body camera footage.
“This is a colloquial expression for an execution, originating from glib reference to execution by the electric chair,” the lawsuit alleges.
Gutierrez attempted to remove Nazario from the car with an “arm-bar,” but failed, according to the lawsuit. The officer pepper-sprayed Nazario in the face and continued to order him out of the SUV, body camera footage shows. The pepper spray caused Nazario’s dog, which was in a crate in the back of the vehicle, to start choking, according to the lawsuit.
After Nazario got out of the vehicle, he was allegedly hit with “knee-strikes” to the legs. Officers continued to strike him after he was on the ground and in tears, according to the lawsuit.
Once Nazario was in handcuffs, the officers pulled him up and began to interrogate him. Medics also responded to provide assistance to Nazario, who said his eyes were burning.
Meanwhile, Crocker searched Nazario’s SUV “without permission or authority” to locate a firearm that Nazario said he had, according to the lawsuit. Crocker “radioed the serial number back to dispatch to see if the firearm was stolen.”
While interrogating Nazario, Gutierrez said the problem was that Nazario hadn’t exited the vehicle, according to the lawsuit.
Nazario was told that he could leave without charges if he would “chill and let this go,” according to the lawsuit—or, he could be charged, have to go to court, and face the consequences in his military career.
The body camera footage adds to the many documented, aggressive police traffic stops of non-white people that have drawn attention in recent years.
“I made the decision to release him without charges,” an incident report narrative from Gutierrez, submitted in the lawsuit as an exhibit, reads. “The reason for this decision is simple; the military is the only place left where double jeopardy applies. Meaning that regardless of what happened in civilian court the military could still take punitive actions against him.”
“Being a military veteran,” Gutierrez’s report continued, “I did not want to see his career ruined over one erroneous decision.”