Virginia AG Files Discrimination Suit Vs. Town in Cop Pepper-Spraying of Caron Nazario, More

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring filed a lawsuit Thursday against the small town of Windsor, alleging that its police department was discriminating against Black residents.

The move follows a December 2020 incident in which police officers pulled over and used pepper spray on Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino.

According to ABC7 News, police had pulled him over for not having a rear license plate, but an April lawsuit said Nazario had recently purchased his vehicle and had cardboard temporary plates taped to its back window.

The incident was captured on one of the officers' body cameras. The video showed Nazario repeatedly asking them to explain what was going on as the officers pepper-sprayed him and forced him to the ground.

Herring said the incident prompted his office to investigate the town's police department. The investigation found that between July 1, 2020, and Sept. 30 of this year, 42 percent of the department's traffic stops were for Black drivers even though only 22 percent of Windsor's population is Black.

The lawsuit also added that Black drivers' cars were more likely to be searched than cars of white drivers. The complaint argues these statistics show that the police department was "performing its law enforcement activities in a discriminatory and biased manner."

Virginia, Attorney General, Mark Herring
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is suing a town, alleging racial discrimination by its police department. Above, Herring talks to the media outside of court on June 18, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The video drew national attention and outrage when it came to light months after the traffic stop, when Nazario sued the two officers, at least one of whom has since been fired.

"While our investigation was spurred by the egregious treatment against Lt. Nazario that we all saw in bodycam footage, we discovered that this incident was indicative of much larger problems within the department," Herring said in a news release. "Our months-long investigation uncovered huge disparities in enforcement against African American drivers, and a troubling lack of policies and procedures to prevent discriminatory or unconstitutional policing."

The town responded with a lengthy statement that broadly rebuffed the allegations and called Herring's decision to file the suit just weeks before he leaves office "clearly political."

Herring, a Democrat, was defeated by Republican Jason Miyares in November. Miyares will be sworn in Jan. 15.

The investigation also found a discrepancy in the data on traffic stops and citations reported to the Town Council versus the Virginia State Police, the lawsuit said.

"In all instances the numbers reported to the Commonwealth were lower than those shared with town council, and the discrepancy has not yet been explained," according to the news release.

Windsor's statement said the complaint cites "questionable data on the quantity and nature of traffic stops and searches," without providing more specifics. It also said that the town's seven-member police department has taken steps this year to increase training and accountability and that those "advancements" had been discussed with Herring's office as recently as Dec. 10.

The lawsuit asks the court to enjoin the town and its employees from engaging in discriminatory law enforcement practices. It also asks that the town be required to hire, at its own expense, an independent monitor to ensure it is complying with state and federal law. It further asks for a $50,000 civil penalty for each violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act.

Herring's lawsuit was filed in the circuit court for Isle of Wight County, where Windsor is located. The town, with a population of about 3,000, is about 70 miles southeast of Richmond.

Herring's office said the lawsuit marked the first enforcement action against a law enforcement agency under a new state law empowering the attorney general to file suit to stop systemic violations of Virginians' civil rights.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.