A Virginia special attorney has ruled that a former police officer should not be charged by the state in a 2020 traffic incident in which a US Army lieutenant, a black man, was assaulted. Instead, the Commonwealth lawyer recommends that the ex-cop be investigated for possible violations of the army officer’s civil rights.
On Friday, July 29, Special Prosecutor Anton Bell released a report on a case involving Lt. Caron Nazario, who is black and Hispanic, and his encounter with two Windsor Police Department officers on December 5, 2020.
Video showed officers drawing their guns and pointing them at Nazario during a traffic delay about 70 miles southeast of Richmond. The lieutenant, who was fully clad in his uniform, was first verbally threatened by officers at the time – suggesting he could be executed – and later pepper-sprayed and handcuffed before being thrown to the ground, reports The Associated Press.
Despite the aggressive imprisonment, the lieutenant was never charged with a crime.
In April 2021, four months after the incident, Nazario, now 28, filed a federal lawsuit against the two WPD officers, alleging his constitutional rights had been violated. After the lawsuit was filed, video of the violent obstruction was released, drawing national attention and outrage.
A year after the ordeal, in December 2021, then-Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring sued the department on behalf of the city’s black citizens, alleging that local law enforcement had a history of systematic discrimination against its African-American residents and, in doing so, their constitutional rights rights violated.
The trigger for the pending lawsuit was the army officer’s traffic control.
As a result, Joe Gutierrez, one of the arresting officers, was fired from his job with the force and became the subject of a criminal investigation by the Special Attorneys’ Office.
In an interview with Atlanta Black Star last year, one of Nazario’s attorneys, Jonathan Arthur, questioned why Crocker, the rookie officer, wasn’t also terminated, arguing he didn’t step in and stopped the alleged abuse of Guttierez.
“I find it particularly problematic that Crocker still exists. If you want to teach the police what not to do, end that man too,” Arthur said then.
“And as for Joe Gutierrez, yes, he was fired from Windsor. But the problem is – as far as I know – he still has his law enforcement certification,” he added. “So he can just go to Windsor from the Isle of Wight and now jump to Waverly. Just report to the Waverly Police Department and do the same to young black men and women just down the road on (Highway) 460.”
At the time, WPD Police Chief Rodney D. Riddle said the men were both appropriately disciplined for their roles in the botched incarceration.
Bell’s report, which was addressed to Commonwealth Attorney Georgette C. Phillips, after his fact-check, said he did not believe the officer violated state law or violated police policy.
“I conducted an investigation conducted by the Virginia State Police,” he wrote. “I reviewed the Virginia State investigative report, reviewed video of the disputed event, and discussed the investigation with Virginia State Police Special Agents … I conducted a comprehensive review of Virginia State law to form my opinion as to whether charges these things are justified.”
“I have determined that no violation of state law occurred on the date in question,” he concluded.
He continued, “I specifically based the above decision on the fact that the traffic stop alone was not a violation of the law. The problem was the manner in which Gutierrez was conducting traffic control – including the use and/or type of force used to stop 2nd Lt. remove Caron Nazario from his vehicle.”
He continued, “While I find the video very disturbing and frankly disturbing, Gutierrez’s use of force to remove Nazario did not violate state law as he had ordered Nazario out of the vehicle on numerous occasions.”
“The problematic issue, however, was the statements made by Gutierrez throughout the ordeal, which would lead a reasonable person to wonder if underlying biases were at the root of how and why Nazario was treated in a similar way,” Bell reported.
Bell said in the report this prompted him “to contact the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia to formally request the office to begin an investigation to determine whether Gutierrez violated the civil rights of Lt. injured Nazario.
Tom Roberts, one of Nazario’s attorneys, responded to Bell’s finding that he did not believe the special prosecutor should have been given the power to determine whether Gutierrez broke the law.
The lawyer said: “I think there is enough evidence that he acted on purpose. And I believe that he exceeded any authority to use force and therefore committed assault and assault.”
“When it comes to breaking the law, all too often we see that our Commonwealth’s lawyers do not muster the same zeal in pursuing criminal prosecution as they do with other offenders,” he continued in a statement.
According to reports gleaned from both the lieutenant’s lawsuit and police documents, Nazario was pulled over by Officer Daniel Crocker for not having a rear license plate and tinted windows. The officer was on his way home but did not initially stop when told to stop. Instead, he stopped at a well-lit area “for the safety of officers and out of respect for officers.”
Crocker radioed that he was trying to stop an SUV and that the driver “evaded the police,” prompting Gutierrez, who drove past, to join the other police officer in stopping Nazario.
By the time they approached Nazario’s parked vehicle, stopped at a well-lit gas station and where they could both see that his license plate was uncovered, the two officers already had their guns drawn.
The lawsuit states that the two officers attempted to pull Nazario, who continued to have his hands in the air, out of his SUV. When he didn’t want to leave his vehicle, Gutierrez sprayed him with pepper several times.
Gutierrez then tells Nazario that he “wanted to ride the lightning bolt,” a reference to the electric chair death in The Green Mile.
Finally, Nazario gets out of the SUV and asks for the police officer’s boss. Instead of a department head, Gutierrez slams Nazario on his knees, causing him to fall to the ground. The two officers continue to beat him, handcuff him and then question him.
Nazario captured the exchange on his phone and submitted it as evidence in his lawsuit. Bodycam videos of the officers were also used.
Nazario’s lawsuit in 2021 is still pending and awaiting a court hearing. Miyares’ office has not released any updates on the case and has said it does not comment on pending cases.
No word on whether the Justice Department will charge the former officer with violating the lieutenant’s civil rights.
https://atlantablackstar.com/2022/08/05/virginia-special-prosecutor-determines-ex-cop-who-assaulted-black-army-lieutenant-during-a-traffic-stop-should-face-no-criminal-charges/ The special prosecutor finds the ex-Virginia cop who pepper-sprayed and assaulted the Black Army lieutenant during a traffic stop will not be prosecuted