A Virginia special prosecutor has determined a former police officer should not be criminally charged by the state for a 2020 traffic incident involving the assault of a U.S. Army lieutenant, a man of color. Instead, the commonwealth’s attorney recommends that the ex-cop be investigated for possibly violating the Army officer’s civil rights.
On Friday, July 29, special prosecutor Anton Bell released a report on a case pertaining to Lt. Caron Nazario, a Black and Latino man, and his encounter with two officers from the Windsor Police Department on Dec. 5, 2020.
A video captured the officers pulling their guns out and pointing them at Nazario during a traffic stop some 70 miles southeast of Richmond. The lieutenant, fully dressed in his service fatigues, was first verbally threatened by the then-officers — suggesting he may be executed — later pepper-sprayed and handcuffed before being knocked to the ground, The Associated Press reports.
Despite the aggressive detainment, 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, claiming his constitutional rights were violated. After the lawsuit was filed, video of the violent traffic stop was released to the public, 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 the local law enforcement has a history of systemic discrimination against its African American residents, thus violating their constitutional rights.
The lawsuit, which is still pending and has been taken over by Jason Miyares, the new attorney general, was prompted by the Army officer’s traffic stop.
As a result, Joe Gutierrez, one of the arresting officers, was terminated from his job with the force, becoming the subject of a criminal probe by the special prosecutor’s office.
In an interview with Atlanta Black Star last year, one of Nazario’s attorneys, Jonathan Arthur, questioned why Crocker, the rookie officer, was not terminated also, arguing he didn’t intervene and stop Guttierez’s alleged abuse.
“I find it particularly problematic that Crocker is still around. If you want to train the police force on what not to do, terminate this man as well,” Arthur said then.
“And as far as Joe Gutierrez goes, yeah, he was fired from Windsor. But the problem is — from what I know — he’s still got his law enforcement certification,” he added. “So he can just go from Isle of Wight down to Windsor, and now he can hop over to Waverly. Just get hired at the Waverly Police Department keep on doing the same thing to young men and women of color right down the road on (Highway) 460.”
At the time, the WPD police chief, Rodney D. Riddle, said the men were both disciplined appropriately for their part in the botched detainment.
Bell’s report, addressed to Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette C. Phillips, said per his review of the facts he doesn’t believe the officer broke any state laws or went against police policy.
“I have conducted an investigation led by the Virginia State Police,” he wrote. “I have reviewed the Virginia State investigative report, reviewed videos of the contested event, and discussed the investigation with the Virginia State Police Special Agents … I have completed an exhaustive review of Virginia State law in forming my opinions as to whether charges are warranted in this matter.”
“I have found 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 law. The issue was the manner in which Gutierrez conducted the traffic stop— including the use and/or manner of force deployed to remove 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario from his vehicle.”
He continued, “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.”
“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 reported.
Bell said in the report this has prompted him to “reach out to the United States Attorney Office for the Eastern District of Virginia to formally request the office open an investigation to see whether Gutierrez violated the civil rights of Lt. Nazario.
Tom Roberts, one of Nazario’s lawyers, responded to Bell’s finding by saying he doesn’t believe the special prosecutor should have been given the authority to determine if Gutierrez violated the law.
The attorney said, “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.”
“All too often, when it comes to law enforcement violating the laws, we see our Commonwealth’s Attorneys fail to apply the same zeal at prosecuting law enforcement as they do with other offenders,” he continued in a statement.
According to reports, drawn from both the lieutenant’s lawsuit and the police documents, Nazario was pulled over by Officer Daniel Crocker because he had no rear license plate and tinted windows. The officer was on his way home but did not initially stop when signaled to pull over. Instead, he stopped at a well-lit area “for officer safety and out of respect for the officers.”
Crocker radioed in that he was trying to stop an SUV and that the driver was “eluding police,” causing Gutierrez, who was driving by, to join the other police officer in stopping Nazario.
When they finally approached Nazario’s parked vehicle, stopped in a well-lit gas station and where they could both see his license plate was not hidden, the two officers had their firearms already drawn.
The lawsuit says the two officers tried to pull Nazario, who continued to keep his hands in the air, out of his SUV. When he would not leave his vehicle, Gutierrez pepper sprays him several times.
Gutierrez then says to Nazario he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” a reference to death by the electric chair from the movie “The Green Mile.”
Eventually, Nazario steps out of the SUV and asks for the police officers’ supervisor. Instead of a department superior, Gutierrez knocks Nazario to his knees causing him to fall to the ground. The two officers continue to hit him, handcuff him, and then question him.
Nazario captured the exchange on his cellphone, submitting it as evidence with his lawsuit. Also used were the officers’ bodycam videos.
Nazario’s 2021 lawsuit is still pending, waiting to be heard in court. Miyares’ office has not given any updates on the case, stating it does not comment on pending cases.
No word on whether the Department of Justice will move to charge the former officer for violating the lieutenant’s civil rights.