NORFOLK, Va. (AP) – A former Virginia police officer faces criminal charges but faces investigation for possible civil rights violations after he pepper sprayed, beaten and handcuffed a black U.S. Army lieutenant during a traffic stop in 2020, a special prosecutor has determined.
The prosecution’s findings are the latest after a confrontation between two police officers and a uniformed army officer that drew outrage and national attention to the small town of Windsor, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) southeast of Richmond.
The man arrested, Caron Nazario, was never charged. Video of the December 2020 traffic stop resurfaced in April 2021 after Nazario sued in federal court, claimed his constitutional rights were being violated. The images sparked outrage and served as a stark reminder to many black Americans that a military uniform doesn’t necessarily protect against police assault.
In December, the office of then Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring sued the cityclaiming it worked in a way that discriminated against black Americans.
One of the officers, Joe Gutierrez, was fired from the department. He was the target of the Special Prosecutor’s criminal investigation.
“While I find the video deeply disturbing and frankly disturbing, Gutierrez’s use of force to remove Nazario did not violate state law as he had ordered Nazario multiple times to exit the vehicle,” Special Prosecutor Anton Bell said in his report, dated July 29 and posted online by Nazario’s lawyers.
“The problematic issue, however, was Gutierrez’s statements throughout the ordeal, which would lead a reasonable person to question whether underlying bias was the cause of how and why Nazario was treated the same way,” Bell wrote.
Bell’s findings were first reported Monday by The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.
The incident began when Nazario was driving home from his base, according to his lawsuit. Officer Daniel Crocker radioed that he was trying to stop a vehicle with no rear license plate and tinted windows.
Crocker said the driver “evaded the police” and he considered it a “high-risk stop,” according to a report included in the lawsuit. One of Nazario’s attorneys, Jonathan Arthur, later explained that Nazario attempted to stop in a well-lit area “for the safety of the officers and out of respect for the officers.”
The other officer, Gutierrez, drove past and decided to join the traffic stop, the lawsuit said. By the time the two officers reached Nazario’s SUV, the license plate on the back was visible.
When Nazario stopped at a well-lit gas station, the two officers immediately drew their guns and aimed them at Nazario, his lawsuit alleges. The officers then tried to pull Nazario out of the vehicle while he kept his hands in the air. Gutierrez sprinkled Nazario several times while the officers yelled at him to get out.
At one point, Gutierrez told Nazario that he was “fixin’ to riding on lightning,” a reference to the electric chair that was also a line from the movie “The Green Mile,” a movie about a black man who is executed. the lawsuit said. .
Nazario got out and asked for a supervisor. Gutierrez responded with “knee strikes” to his legs, causing him to fall to the ground, the lawsuit said. The two officers beat him several times, then handcuffed him and questioned him.
The traffic stop was captured on Nazario’s cell phone and on the officer’s body-worn cameras.
Tom Roberts, another attorney representing Nazario, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that a judge or jury, not a special prosecutor, should have determined whether Gutierrez broke the law.
“I think there is enough evidence to show that he was deliberate in his actions,” Roberts said. “And I believe he surpassed any authority to use force, which is why he committed attacks and violence.”
Roberts said that would have been a crime, for which the statute of limitations is one year, well before the special counsel released his findings.
“When it comes to law enforcement breaking the law, all too often we see our Commonwealth’s attorneys not apply the same zeal to prosecuting law enforcement as they do other offenders,” Roberts’ firm said in a statement.
John Becker Mumford Jr., a lawyer listed for Gutierrez in Nazario’s lawsuit, did not respond to an email asking for comment.
Bell, the special counsel, wrote that he had asked the local U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate the case for possible civil rights violations. Karoline Foote, a spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, said the office had no comment on Tuesday.
In February, the city of Windsor asked a court to dismiss the attorney general’s lawsuit, arguing that it refers to only one person — Nazario — “in a cursory and inconclusive way.”
Jason Miyares, who defeated Herring in the November election, took over as Virginia’s AG in January. Victoria LaCivita, a spokeswoman for Miyares’ office, said Tuesday the lawsuit is still pending.