Officer Escapes Criminal Charges After Pepper Spraying Army Lieutenant

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Officer speaks with U.S. Army second lieutenant Caron Nazario following Va. traffic stop

A former Virginia officer will not see criminal charges for pepper spraying and striking a Black US Army lieutenant during a traffic stop, according to The Associated Press. Instead, he’ll be investigated for violating the lieutenant’s constitutional rights following the lieutenant’s lawsuit.

In 2020, Caron Nazario pulled into a gas station and two officers approached him with their guns drawn, per Nazario’s lawsuit. The officers stopped him because his rear license plate was not visible. They attempted to pull him out of his car and during the interaction he kept his hands in the air. Per the suit, one officer, Joe Gutierrez, pepper sprayed Nazario multiple times while yelling at him to get out.

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When Nazario stepped out of the car, he asked for a supervisor and in response was struck in the knee and knocked to the ground. The other officer, Daniel Crocker, joined Gutierrez in striking Nazario on the ground. Images of the traffic stop sparked outrage and raised concerns of racial bias in the area.

More on the incident from AP News:

In December, then-Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s office sued the town, alleging that it operated 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 probe.

“Although I find the video very disturbing and frankly unsettling, Gutierrez’s use of force to remove Nazario did not violate state law as he had given multiple commands for Nazario to exit the vehicle,” special prosecutor Anton Bell said in his report, dated July 29 and posted online by Nazario’s attorneys.

“The problematic issue, however, were Gutierrez’s statements throughout the entire ordeal, which would lead a reasonable person to wonder whether underlying bias was at the root of how and why Nazario was treated in like manner,” Bell wrote.

The use of force seemed unnecessary all around. Not only did Nazario comply with the officers’ commands, but he was met with aggression after already getting out of the car. If that didn’t seem vile enough, Gutierrez slid a smart comment that Nazario was “fixin to ride the lightning” - a reference to the electric chair.

Nazario’s attorney Tom Roberts told AP News their use of force was deliberate. “I think that there’s sufficient evidence to show that he was intentional in his actions. And I believe that he exceeded any authority to use force, and therefore he committed assault and battery,” he said.

The attorney general’s lawsuit is still pending and so is Nazario’s, alleging his constitutional rights were violated.