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Two Indian American Women Held at Gunpoint, Handcuffed During Traffic Stop in Los Angeles

Two Indian American Women Held at Gunpoint, Handcuffed During Traffic Stop in Los Angeles

  • Shibani Balsaver and Sheilnee "Shona" Sen sue the Los Angeles Police Department for use of force and wrongful targeting after mistaking their U-Haul truck for a stolen vehicle.

Film production coordinator Shibani Balsaver, and her friend Sheilnee “Shona” Sen have filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department for violating their civil rights by using illegal and violent “high-risk tactics” during what should have been a routine traffic stop. The incident occurred on Feb. 8, 2020, when Balsaver, 31, rented a U- Haul truck to to move to her new apartment. The five-minute drive — from Hollywood to Los Feliz —turned out to be a nightmare for the two Indian American women. 

In a blog post on Medium, Balsaver describes her feelings that say. “It’s moving day,” an excited Balasaver writes. “The dreaded day I realize I own way too many things. But a ‘new life’ is a gleaming blank canvas and I can’t wait to get to it.” She adds: “I decided against movers for two reasons — the expense is more than this budding entrepreneur is willing to shell out, and more importantly, I am determined to practice interdependence.” 

So, with the able assistance of Sen, both ladies set off in the U-Haul, driving east of Hollywood. As they neared Balasaver’s new home, more than 10 Los Angeles police officers, with their guns drawn, stopped their vehicle and surrounded the two women inside, as an LAPD helicopter hovered. With their firearms aimed at the pair, officers ordered Balsaver to drop the key out the window and then for her and Sen to get out of the truck. They forced the two to lay face-down in the street, while the officers kept their guns trained on the two women spread-eagle on the pavement during the incident.

A bystander (Sen’s boyfriend Roger) captured the video showing two large male officers putting their knees on the back and one put his right knee on Balsaver’s neck as the women were handcuffed. The officers had mistakenly believed the truck was stolen. 

Reliving the day through the blog, Balsaver writes, “I see Mr. Authority (original cop), still positioned behind his car door using it as a sort of shield. Only now, he holds a gun. Not the pistol all cops have on their belts. This is a huge rifle that stands almost as long as his frame. This is a gun that requires a long body strap just to hold it. This is a gun that shouldn’t be meant for anyone, certainly not for Shona and me.” 

Chronicling the incident further, Balsaver writes that a police vehicle was following her most of the drive between her old and new apartments, but she thought little of it, and was confused when it followed her to her new block. She described the panic she felt as more cop cars arrived, saying that no one came to the window of the truck to explain what was happening, as a handful of police cars arrived at the scene. 

“I felt terrified,” Balsaver said in an interview with the “Los Angeles Times”. “I thought the officers were going to shoot and kill me. There were a lot of officers with guns.” She said she at first had no idea what was happening but she was shaking as an officer placed “a lot of weight down on me” while she was on the ground.  “I feel a knee push down hard into my back. Another forces my head down,” she writes in her post. “They grab my right hand, twist my arm behind me, and wrap a cuff around my hand. I lift my left and they do the same.”  

Sen said when she saw the officer point a gun at her, she began to panic. “My heart was beating so hard that it felt like it was to jump out of my chest.”

The lawsuit accuses officers of following an official LAPD policy that allows them to treat traffic stops for non-violent property crimes, such as suspected stolen vehicles, as situations warranting high-risk tactics, including the pointing of guns. The women said they were not told why they were pulled over until after they were handcuffed. Balsaver told an officer that a receipt for the truck, rented earlier that morning, was in her bag.  Balsaver in her post said that, after she proved her innocence with the receipt, officers joked and teased her about the incident, telling her to “demand free U-Haul services for a year.”

Balsaver also added that the LAPD told her that officers had not yet been trained to decipher between stolen and recovered vehicles in the department’s “new” four-month-old system. U Haul had reported the vehicle had recovered several weeks prior to the incident.  U-Haul told CBS News that the incident did not involve any error on behalf of U-Haul. It declined to comment on the lawsuit. 

In 2014, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal declared such high-risk tactics unconstitutional in nonviolent offenses. But attorney Brian Olney told L.A. Times that the LAPD’s defiance of that court decision continues to terrify innocent people such as Balsaver and Sen with unlawful practices. “A photo speaks a thousand words. Do these two women look like they are a threat? And yet the police officers have their guns drawn pointed right at them,” Olney said of the images of the incident. “This was how Shibani was introduced to her neighbors.” 

Noting that “the courts have ruled these tactics create a de facto arrest that violates the 4th Amendment,” Onley told L.A. Times that “the LAPD continues to ignore the law.” Adding that “the truck was not stolen,” he said  “it was a LAPD failure to train its officers that created the life-threatening situation.” 

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The U-Haul truck had once been reported stolen but was recovered and repeatedly rented out before Balsaver rented it. 

The women were freed once officers were able to confirm the U-Haul was not stolen. “They could have simply asked to see the receipt for the rental when they approached the cab, and all this would not have been necessary,” Olney said.

According to the lawsuit, in the aftermath, LAPD Sgt. Jeannette Pelayo of the Hollywood station told the women the department had failed to train its officers on new computer codes to distinguish between formerly stolen vehicles and current stolen ones. Balsaver told L.A. Times that the sergeant told them she’d be “very upset if it was her mother or sister it happened to, but she never apologized.”  She said she hopes the lawsuit ends such behavior by the LAPD. “This absolutely should not happen,” she said. “I really feel like they treated us like we were guilty. I realize now this happens on a daily basis.”

The officers also forced Sen at gunpoint to open the back of the truck and reveal what was inside, the lawsuit says. Without any probable cause, the lawsuit says officers searched Balsaver’s personal possessions. 

The lawsuit identifies Officer Jonathan Jarvis as one of the officers involved, saying he jammed his left knee into Balsaver’s back and his “right knee into the back of her head and neck, pressing her face into the pavement as he handcuffed her.” Olney alleges that the officers used “high-risk procedures” during a traffic stop that was not high risk and involved an alleged non-violent property crime. “Courts have made it very clear, but the LAPD refuses to listen,” he said. “They know what the law is, they’re sworn to uphold it, but they made a deliberate decision to break it.”

The 2014 case limiting the use of stops stems from a May 2009 incident in which a San Francisco sergeant did a high-risk stop on a 47-year Black woman after an automatic license plate reader misread her Lexus license plate as matching that of a stolen vehicle. The Ninth Circuit found that a stolen car report in itself does not mean a driver presents a threat to justify the tactics in the stop.

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