Caron Nazario, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, was driving to Petersburg, Va., from a drill weekend the night of Dec. 5 when he saw police lights flashing behind him.
Too nervous to stop on a darkened road, Lieutenant Nazario, who is Black and Latino, drove about a mile to a gas station, pulled over and placed his cellphone on his dashboard, according to a lawsuit and video footage of the encounter.
Immediately, two Windsor police officers can be heard yelling orders at him.
“Get out of the car,” one yells as Lieutenant Nazario, remaining seated, repeatedly asks why he had been stopped and why the officers had drawn their guns. He positions his empty hands outside the window.
“I’m honestly afraid to get out of the car,” Lieutenant Nazario says.
“Yeah,” says one of the officers, Joe Gutierrez, according to footage from his body camera. “You should be.”
Seconds later, Officer Gutierrez doused the lieutenant with pepper spray. Lieutenant Nazario’s hands remained up as he coughed and pleaded with the officers to undo his seatbelt and make sure his dog, Smoke, was not choking in the back. Liquid from the spray dripped down his hands and face.
Lieutenant Nazario, 27, a graduate of Virginia State University, filed a lawsuit this month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. It accuses the officers of illegally searching his car, using excessive force and violating his rights under the First Amendment. The lawsuit seeks $1 million in compensatory damages.
Lieutenant Nazario also accused the officers of threatening to destroy his military career by charging him with multiple crimes if he complained about their conduct, according to the complaint, which was reported this week by The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk.
Officer Gutierrez and the other officer named in the lawsuit, Daniel Crocker, did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday. Chief Rodney Daniel Riddle of the Windsor Police Department did not respond to messages.
The police force in Windsor, a rural town of about 2,700 people about 30 miles west of Norfolk, consists of six members: a chief, a first sergeant, a detective and three officers, according to the town’s website.
The police officers did not arrest Lieutenant Nazario and have not filed charges.
In a report from that night the officers said they had pulled over Lieutenant Nazario because his S.U.V. did not have license plates. Lieutenant Nazario said he had recently bought a Chevrolet Tahoe and was waiting for license plates. Temporary ones had been taped inside the rear window and were visible, according to the lawsuit.
The police report also said Lieutenant Nazario had “willfully and wantonly disregarded” police lights and sirens before pulling over, and “was actively resisting” when Officer Crocker attempted to open the S.U.V.’s driver-side door.
Lawyers for Lieutenant Nazario filed copies of video footage from his cellphone and from police body cameras that showed both officers approaching Lieutenant Nazario’s vehicle at the gas station with their weapons drawn.
“I’m actively serving this country and this is how you’re going to treat me?” he says in the footage.
“What’s going on?” Lieutenant Nazario then asks.
“What’s going on is you’re fixing to ride the lightning, son,” Officer Gutierrez yells. (Later, after striking Lieutenant Nazario behind his knees, the officer told him to “lay down or I’m going to tase you,” as the officers appeared to struggle to get Lieutenant Nazario on the ground.)
After he was sprayed, Lieutenant Nazario began crying and cursing.
After two volunteers from the town’s emergency medical service arrived, Officer Crocker approached Lieutenant Nazario, who stood handcuffed near his S.U.V., and asked why he had not complied with their “simple” commands.
“What would have been a two-minute traffic stop turned into all this,” Officer Crocker says in the footage. “I’m not out to hurt you and I know you don’t want to hurt me.”
Lieutenant Nazario said that when the police had stopped him before he had made a point of pulling over in well-lit areas.
“I never looked out the window and saw guns blazing immediately,” he tells Officer Crocker in the video.
Officer Gutierrez later told Lieutenant Nazario that his chief had given him the discretion to let him go so long as the lieutenant did not “fight and argue.”
Officer Gutierrez said he would not have to write a summons for obstruction of justice and failure to display a license plate “if you want to chill and let this go.”
If he wrote a summons, the Army would have to be alerted, Officer Gutierrez told Lieutenant Nazario.
Lieutenant Nazario said he would be alerting his supervisors about what had occurred.
“I get it,” Officer Gutierrez says. “The media spewing race relations between law enforcement and minorities, I get it.”
Lieutenant Nazario’s lawyer, Jonathan Arthur, said the lieutenant had told his supervisors about the stop almost immediately.
“He’s still really shaken up,” Mr. Arthur said. “He’s very, very worried about retaliation.”