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Northam Calls for Investigation Into Windsor Traffic Stop

Person hold hands out of window during traffic stop
In this image made from Windsor, (Va.) Police video, A police officer uses a spray agent on Caron Nazario on Dec. 20, 2020, in Windsor, Va. Nazario, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, is suing two Virginia police officers over a traffic stop during which he says the officers drew their guns and pointed them at him as he was dressed in uniform. Caron Nazario says his constitutional rights were violated by the traffic stop in the town of Windsor in December. (Windsor Police via AP)

A Dec. 2020 traffic stop in southeast Virginia involving a U.S Army officer has prompted Gov. Ralph Northam to call for an investigation. On Dec. 5, Windsor Police officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker stopped Lt. Caron Nazario for driving without a rear license plate, despite the temporary plate displayed in the back window.

Nazario, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, was in full uniform when he was pepper sprayed, threatened and beaten by the officers, one of whom has been fired. 

The incident was captured in widely-shared body camera footage. 

“The video doesn’t show anything to justify how Lt. Nazario was treated,” said Attorney General Mark Herring in a tweet.

Northam ordered state police to investigate the traffic stop. 

The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police issued a statement supporting the investigation. 

“We do not condone excessive use of force in any way, and believe that appropriate action should be taken upon completion of an investigation,” the statement said. 

Virginia House Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring and House Democratic Caucus Chair Rip Sullivan said in a statement that the footage was undeniably unprofessional and unethical.

“Behavior like this tarnishes the work of all law enforcement and undermines efforts to create trust between police officers and communities,” the statement said. 

Several state laws took effect earlier this year that advocates say could have prevented the incident. 

As of March 1, the state bans traffic stops for minor infractions. There’s now a legal requirement that officers intervene when a colleague is using excessive force or violating some other policy. And statewide policing standards should be in place by the end of the year. The Department of Criminal Justice Services is developing those standards. Violators could be barred from policing in the state.

“So under the law that went into effect on the first of March, it wouldn't have been an illegal stop,” Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, ACLU Virginia executive director, said. 

“So the good news is, we'll have some additional tools that will be in place in the future that weren't in place in December,” Gastañaga said. “But the fact is, there's a cultural change that has to take place in our police departments. And that's going to take some time.”

Sen. Mamie Locke agreed that this incident, at its core, is the product of culture. 

“As long as you have police officers and law enforcement officers who feel that they can treat people that way, that kind of behavior is going to continue,” Locke said. 

She said she hoped the new laws passed this year would have had an immediate impact. 

“I would have thought that since law enforcement agencies knew that we had gone through this exercise of moving forward with legislation to ensure that we were trying to make these kinds that they would have tried to change themselves anyway, without the law simply going into effect at a date certain,” Locke said.

Nazario has filed a lawsuit against the Windsor Police Department, claiming officers violated Nazario’s Fourth and First Amendment rights. The locality will likely use qualified immunity as a defense to any kind of liability. 

Qualified immunity is a legal principle shielding government officials, including police officers, from civil lawsuits unless the plaintiff shows they violated clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.

Gastañaga said, “But until we change the state law, until the Congress changes the federal law, police continue to be immune from damages.”

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus released a statement that also calls for an end to qualified immunity and other reforms. 

“We must revolutionize police accountability here in Virginia,” the statement said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misquoted Claire Guthrie Gastañaga. She said legislation wouldn't have made this traffic stop illegal; we had it as 'legal.' We've updated the quote.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.