Army lieutenant pepper-sprayed by Virginia police awarded $3,685


A federal jury in Virginia on Tuesday awarded $3,685 to an Army lieutenant who had asked for $1 million, alleging in a lawsuit that he was threatened, assaulted and falsely imprisoned during a 2020 traffic stop in which police officers pepper sprayed him, held him at gunpoint and told him he “should be” afraid of them.

Caron Nazario, a second lieutenant in the Army, was driving his new SUV on Dec. 5, 2020, when he was pulled over for not having permanent license plates installed. As it was dark and he was on a major roadway, he slowed down and waited until he came across a brightly lit gas station, Nazario said in the lawsuit filed last year in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

The officers asked Nazario, who is Black and Latino, to exit the vehicle. Nazario, questioning why such a measure was necessary over a license plate, told them he was “honestly afraid to get out.”

“Yeah, you should be!” replied Joe Gutierrez, one of the Windsor, Va., officers named in the suit, according to video of the episode.

Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino, is suing two Virginia police officers who he claims violated his constitutional rights at a December 2020 traffic stop. (Video: The Washington Post)

Nazario was then pepper-sprayed, hit and handcuffed, videos showed. Gutierrez told Nazario, “You’re fixing to ride the lightning, son,” a reference the lawsuit argued was meant to be a threat that “Gutierrez was going to execute Lt. Nazario right there in the gas station parking lot.” Attorneys for Gutierrez argued he was referencing the use of a Taser, not execution.

They also threatened to end his military career if Nazario raised concerns over their conduct, according to the lawsuit.

A Black Army officer held at gunpoint during traffic stop was afraid to get out of his car. ‘You should be,’ police said.

Nazario alleged in the lawsuit, seeking $1 million in damages, that he was injured physically and mentally by Gutierrez and the other officer, Daniel Crocker. His constitutional rights were also violated, he said.

But the jury largely sided with Crocker and Gutierrez, awarding Nazario $1,000 in punitive damages after it found Crocker violated Nazario’s rights under state law, and $2,685 in compensatory damages after it found Gutierrez assaulted him.

Tom Roberts, an attorney for Nazario, said the jury’s verdict, and the amount of damages it awarded to his client, were “adding insult to injury.” He said in a statement that it was “unlikely that the verdict will send a message to police officers, other than to let them know that this behavior will not result in any meaningful consequences.”

The traffic stop became one of the many altercations between law enforcement officers and Black drivers that have gone viral after being caught on video. In the aftermath of the episode, Gutierrez was fired and then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called for an investigation.

Coreen Silverman, an attorney for Gutierrez, said “the jury did their job and did it well.” She said the case was about “more than a traffic stop for missing license plates,” adding that Gutierrez was “very grateful to the jury for taking the time to deliberate the evidence.”

An attorney for Crocker, Richard Matthews, said in a statement that the jury reached the “correct decision given the current political climate.”

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