A federal jury in Virginia 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, reports the Washington Post. Caron Nazario, a second lieutenant in the Army, was driving a new SUV on Dec. 5, 2020, when he was pulled over for not having permanent license plates installed. Because 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. 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.” Nazario was then pepper-sprayed, hit and handcuffed. Windsor, Va., officer Joe Gutierrez told Nazario, “You’re fixing to ride the lightning, son,” a reference the lawsuit argued was meant as 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 a Taser, not execution.
Nazario alleged that he was injured physically and mentally by Gutierrez and the other officer, Daniel Crocker. His constitutional rights were also violated, he said. 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 added "insult to injury.” He said 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 called for an investigation. Coreen Silverman, an attorney for Gutierrez, said “the jury did their job and did it well.” An attorney for Crocker, Richard Matthews, said the jury reached the “correct decision given the current political climate.”