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Army lieutenant who was pepper sprayed by police in Virginia was awarded $3,685

Army lieutenant who was pepper sprayed by police in Virginia was awarded $3,685

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

Karon 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 attached. Because it was dark and he was on a major road, he slowed down and waited until he came upon a brightly lit gas station, Nazario said in the lawsuit filed last year in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Officers asked Nazario, who is black and Hispanic, to step out of the vehicle. Nazario, asking why such a license plate measure was needed, told them he was “honestly afraid to go out.”

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

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

Nazario was then pepper-sprayed, punched and handcuffed, videos show. Gutierrez told Nazario, “You’re getting good at riding the lightning, son,” a reference the lawsuit alleges was a threat that “Gutierrez was going to execute Lt. Nazario right there in the gas station parking lot.” Gutierrez’s lawyers argued that he was referring to the use of the Taser, not the execution.

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

A Black Army officer held at gunpoint during a traffic stop was afraid to get out of his car. “It should,” the police said.

Nazario claims in the lawsuit, seeking $1 million in damages, that he was physically and mentally harmed 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 finding that Crocker violated Nazario’s rights under state law and $2,685 in compensatory damages after finding that Gutierrez had attacked.

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

The traffic stop became one of many altercations between law enforcement officers and black drivers that went viral after being caught on video. After the Gutierrez episode the then manager was also dismissed. Ralph Northam (D) called for an investigation.

Corinne Silverman, Gutierrez’s attorney, said “the jury did its job, and it did its job 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 consider the evidence.”

Crocker’s attorney, Richard Matthews, said in a statement that the jury reached “the right decision given the current political climate.”

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