Why Was Civil Rights Attorney Tom Roberts’ Client Stopped?

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Pressure is now mounting on President Biden and Congress to commit to holding police officers accountable for misconduct. This comes as newly released bodycam footage of the fatal police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago on March 29th raises significant questions about the official version of events. Yet another controversial encounter occurred in Virginia in December when two police officers pointed guns at and pepper sprayed Army 2nd lieutenant, Caron Nazario, during a traffic stop. Nazario is suing the two police officers for a million dollars in damages. Here’s our Michel Martin talking to his lawyer, Thomas Roberts.

MICHEL MARTIN: Thank you, Christiane. And, Thomas Roberts, thank you so much for joining us.

THOMAS ROBERTS, ATTORNEY: Oh, you’re welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You are representing Lieutenant Caron Nazario in his case action. You and your firm are representing him in his complaint against the Windsor Virginia Police Department, specifically the two officers who pulled him over in the department, not the whole, I would assume. We’re going to play some very disturbing video of this encounter. This just emerged. This incident happened in December, but this just emerged this week and it’s caused a lot of attention, as you would imagine. We’re not going to play the entirety of the encounter, but we are going to play a role, a portion of it. And here it is.

OFFICCER: Get out of the car now. Get out of the car now. Get out of the car. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, just get out of the car. Work with us and we’ll talk to you. Get out of the car. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You received an order. Obey it.

CARON NAZARIO: I’m honestly afraid to get out.

OFFICCER: Yes, you should be. Get out. Get out.

NAZARIO: What’s going on.

OFFICCER: Get out of the car.

OFFICCER: Get out, now.

NAZARIO: I have not committed any crimes.

OFFICCER: You’re being stop for a traffic violation. You’re not cooperating at this point right now. You’re under arrest for — you’re being detained, OK. You’re being detained for obstruction of justice.

NAZARIO: For a traffic violation, I do not have to get out of the vehicle. Do you have any (INAUDIBLE).

OFFICCER: Really? Get out of the car now. Get out of the car.

NAZARIO: Get your hands off me.

OFFICCER: Get out of the car.

NAZARIO: Get your hands off me. Get your hands off me.

OFFICCER: You know what, not a problem.

NAZARIO: I didn’t do anything. I’m actively serving this country and this is how you’re going to treat me?

OFFICCER: Back up, Daniel.

NAZARIO: I didn’t do anything.

OFFICCER: Back up.

NAZARIO: Hold on. What’s going — hold on.

MARTIN: Mr. Roberts, you’re aware of the reaction that this has caused around the country when the public first saw this. I’d like to ask you how you reacted when you first saw this.

ROBERTS: With horror. We saw this, first the eye of Lieutenant Nazario’s camera and it caused us concern. We wanted to get all angles before we took any action. So, we obtained the body cam footage. And when we saw that it confirmed our worst fear.

MARTIN: What is your worst fear and what did you see when you saw this, especially when you saw the incident in its totality? What do you see here?

ROBERTS: In its totality, what you first have to see is that when he was lit up from the body cam you can see that he immediately showed that he was complying by slowing down. At one point in time, he had slowed down to 18 miles an hour and he moved to the closest lit place, which was insight and pulled over and stopped his car, rolled his windows down. And although, this clip didn’t start there, the very first demands they came out were keep your hands out of the window. And throughout this clip, you see that that’s exactly what he did. He kept his hands out of the window and he kept him out because he feared. Why did he fear? Because when he stopped, he saw in his mirror on the side that the first thing that happened is they came out with guns drawn pointed at him. He was concerned that he was going die, that something volatile was happening, something wasn’t right. And so, he turned his camera on at that point in time. Had his hands outside of the window and kept him there. Now, the commands were conflicting. How do you keep your hands outside the window and get out of the car? He chose to obey the first command and kept those hands out throughout the entire incident.

MARTIN: Did they say why they tried to pull him over to begin with? Did that ever — I understand we aren’t seeing this video in its totality. It goes on for, you know, some few message. Did they ever tell him directly why they say they pulled him over?

ROBERTS: Throughout the time that he was asking what’s going on, they did not. Later in the video and also in police report, that’s what we have discerned is that it all dealt with — that there was not a license plate at the bumper where you normally see one. But again, that issue was clarified when they pulled in behind him and followed him at a slow rate of speed and got to the lit area of the B.P. station. And you could see that, the reason for stopping him disappeared, and that should have been the end of it. But the law makes it very clear, when you’re talking about reasonable force under Graham, you know, you look at every instance and you don’t look at it, you know, sitting in the, you know, Monday night quarterback, it’s from the officer’s perspective and it’s supposed to be an objective view, but you look at the severity of the crime. In this case, there was no severe crime. You look at whether or not he is posing a danger to the officers or others, he has his hands out the window. He’s dressed in fatigues from the U.S. Army. He is not representing a danger to anybody. His hands are clearly in an, I give up, I’m complying mode. People — I hear people saying, well, he should have gotten out of the car. In the clip that you showed, you heard many times, get out of the car. But in order to get out of the car, what would he have to do? He would have to take his hand and move it into the dark car, even though it’s lit, you know, you see him can’t moving it. And in this case, this young officer had a legal firearm near the seat belt. It was concealed weapon. It was lawfully. He had every right to have it there. But the last thing he would want to do is reach in the vicinity of a firearm when you have two guns pointed at you. Had he done that and they shot him, we’d probably be hearing a different story, a different narrative with a young man reached for firearm, shot, officer’s a hero.

MARTIN: You hear Lieutenant Nazario say, I’m afraid to get out of the car.


MARTIN: And then you hear Officer Gutierrez say, you should be, you should be. How do you interpret that?

ROBERTS: I think everybody interprets it the correct way. When he was asking, what’s going on, Lieutenant — Gutierrez, he responds, what’s on? You’re about to ride — you’re fixing to ride the lighting, son. Now —

MARTIN: What does that mean?

ROBERTS: You have two people — you know, you have Gutierrez, whatever he intended it to mean, and you have Lieutenant Nazario. I believe, first and foremost, it meant that you are about to experience violence.

MARTIN: Is there any circumstance in which you think that’s an appropriate thing to say after a traffic stop or during a traffic stop?

ROBERTS: What it did is it confirmed that Lieutenant Nazario was reasonable in his belief that he was about to be injured or killed. He’s saying, I fear — I’m fearing. Because of the prior statement you made, I legitimately fear and you got two guns pointed at me, I fear for my life. I’m afraid to get out. And the officer confirms that and says, you should be. It’s despicable.

MARTIN: The police chief of Windsor department, Rodney Riddle, has finally spoken about this. He spoke about this on Wednesday of this week. And he insisted that 2nd Lieutenant Nazario “created the tense situation” by failing to respond immediately on the night of December 5th when the police car flashes lights and pull him over. And so, how do you react to that?

ROBERTS: First of all, if you listen to a tape, the officers themselves dispel the chief’s statement. And I find the statement to be disingenuous for the following reason. The officers admitted on the videotape later as he’s in handcuffs, they say, yes, you know, it happens all the time. People don’t stop on a dark road and drive to a lit area. If it happens all the time as they said, how is driving 80 miles an hour failing to obey?

MARTIN: So, let me just say this, but chief says that this whole — that the escalation is — that the situation in totality is Lieutenant Nazario’s fault. But he did fire Officer Gutierrez who pepper sprayed Lieutenant Nazario in the face and you can hear screaming at him and saying falsely that he is — that he’s under arrest, which he isn’t. Does that change anything for you?

ROBERTS: What’s was disturbing about the statement by chief of police is, first of all, the chief of police showed up there that night. And secondly, as I understand it, we’re going to be looking — investigating further. But the history between Officer Gutierrez and the chief is, from what I understand, a long history. And after the meeting that Gutierrez had with the chief, there is a clip portion that you should find extremely disturbing. Because in that clip, it appears that Officer Gutierrez to convinced Lieutenant Nazario that he is the one that’s responsible for this incident and he’s walking through a false narrative on the tape. And then it gets worse when he says, you know, I know — and I’m paraphrasing here a little bit, but I know, you know, it’s your right to make something up, to speak out. But if you let it go, we’re going to let you go, while he’s got the man in handcuffs. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The chief is giving me discretion on how to handle it. He’s like, these are the situations. I said, that’s what I was thinking. That’s what I want to do. He’s like, not a problem. We can either let it go, help him out, get his eyes back and get him on down the world so the army doesn’t get involved or we charge you and then it’s a big hassle for you. It doesn’t change my life one either way. (END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: I don’t know how to interpret that other than saying, you know, you shut up, you keep it quiet and we’re not going to charge you with a crime. We have words for that, it’s called extortion. This is wrong. You can’t do that.

MARTIN: At the moment, you and I are speaking, there has been another killing of an unarmed individual in Minnesota, Former Police Officer Derek Chauvin is on trial in the death of George Floyd with also video evidence that has now gone viral internationally. This has been seen all around the world. What do you think about this particular case that people find so disturbing? What is it that you think the public is reacting to here?

ROBERTS: First of all, I’m seeing — from the public, I’m seeing an overwhelming response. From some of the leadership, there’s a corner that’s missing. You know, many of our Democratic friends have spoken out. But in the conservative circles, there’s complete silence. Among the population, not so. Among the leaders, silence. There — I think they are afraid because it’s yet another black man that they’re not going to speak out. That’s wrong. Justice is for everybody, irrespective of the color of your skin. And I tell people, you know, we take cases. We take cases whether you’re white, whether you’re black, we take your cases. But the unfortunate reality is that so many other chases are cases involving minorities, people of color. That’s a sad reality. And you can it — conservatives have got to get their head out of the sand and say, this is a problem and it affects minorities in a way that it shouldn’t. It’s too much on the minority community.

MARTIN: Why does this bother you so much that you’re not hearing from conservatives expressing outrage about this?

ROBERTS: It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing. I’m a conservative because of the views that I hold. I hold the views that all men are creating equal. I hold the views that government and the source of government should be restrained by a constitution. Traditionally, that was the conservative view. And there was a time when liberals and conservatives could meet on some essential elements, like the First Amendment. You know, the right to speak. People use to say, you know, I may disagree with you but I will defend your right to speak. I will die for your right to speak. We’ve lost that in this country.

MARTIN: What do you think should happen now or what do Lieutenant Nazario think should happen now?

ROBERTS: Well, first thing. Giving an individual a shield or a badge and a gun is a responsibility, it’s an honor and a responsibility. If you are not able or you’re not willing to live up to that response (INAUDIBLE), get out of the force. And I say to our officers, if you see a fellow officer that’s unwilling or unable to live up to that responsibility, don’t tarnish your name by standing there doing nothing. You need to intervene. You need to say, we are subject to the law and you may not violate the law by using excessive force on this man, and you may not cover up a matter by writing something in your report that is inconsistent with the facts. There are good officers and those officers should be the ones standing up and saying, no more. This has to stop. Because it ruins their reputation.

MARTIN: You seem — forgive me for — obviously, we are here to talk about Lieutenant Nazario, your appearance, his representative, but you seem very upset and I just wanted to ask what is this bringing up for you?

ROBERTS: I love this country and I know a lot of people do. I love this country because the people in it and I love this country because the way that it was set up, there were ideals. The nation has not lived up to those ideals but it’s a nation that began with ideals. And our struggle that we have today is to continue to rise to the ideals. You know, acknowledge we failed.

MARTIN: Do you think that Lieutenant Nazario would have been treated the same way if he were white?

ROBERTS: In this, case I don’t believe so. And the reason I say it, in this case, because the officers acknowledged that — first of all, it happens all the time that people go travel to this lit area. And secondly, they acknowledged that 80 percent of the time, there’s people of color who do that. And so, coming in with guns drawn, I think in this case, is — has to be based upon what they told us was in their mind.

MARTIN: Well, what does that mean? I mean, it would seem to me that maybe that means that the people of color pull over to a well-lit area because they are afraid of them.


MARTIN: Isn’t that the logical implication of that?

ROBERTS: Absolutely. And, you know, there’s nothing unreasonable about that fear given what we’ve seen in the last 10 years.

MARTIN: You know, the people — the chief has said in his remarks earlier this week that this was a training issue and he said that the — as we’ve said, he fired one officer but he also (INAUDIBLE) the other officer, Officer Crocker, who you’ve seen, the younger officer who we heard in the earlier clip, has the makings of the officer. Is this a training issue or is this something else?

ROBERTS: I’m going to answer that question by saying, look at his report. How do you train honesty? Character is a virtue and I think that you don’t just train, it’s part of the person, it’s part of the long makeup. And when you have an officer that writes in a report things that don’t match what actually happened, that’s a character problem, that’s a character issue. That’s not a training issue.

MARTIN: What does justice for Lieutenant Nazario look like in this case? And could you be more specific and tell us what specifically your lawsuit asks for?

ROBERTS: Justice in this case is to hold the officers accountable. And the only way that we can do that in the lawsuit is to ask for money damages. Those money damages include compensatory damages to compensate him for the agony, for the mental stress that he experienced and will continue to experience. This is not going to go away in his mind, this event, where he thought he was going to die as — like a dog on the street as they are putting it down on the ground. He was like, no. You know, that compensation is one that a jury, a jury of his peers in the Norfolk Federal Court will decide, you know, how do you put a salve (ph) over this injury. The other part of that is punitive damages. We’ve asked that — the jury in this case, we will ask them to do two things, to punish the offenders and not only that, but to award what’s called exemplary damages. Exemplary damages are to make this statement. A statement loud enough for people to hear as a warning to other officers that if you do this sort of conduct, you will be punished. This has to stop. And so, that is what justice looks like for Lieutenant Nazario.

MARTIN: Thomas Roberts, thank you so much for joining us.

ROBERTS: Well, thank you for your interest and insights. Thank you very much.

About This Episode EXPAND

Skye Fitzgerald; Nima Elbagir; Blake Bailey; Thomas Roberts. The interview with author Blake Bailey that appears in this program was conducted and broadcast prior to the allegations of sexual assault becoming public.