Two women are suing the Los Angeles Police Department, saying officers held them at gunpoint after thinking the U-Haul they were driving was stolen.
The "highly invasive and terrifying" traffic stop happened on Feb. 8 when Shibani Balsaver rented a U-Haul to move her belongings from her old apartment just east of Hollywood to Los Angeles, according to a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for Central District of California.
Her friend, Sheilanee Sen, was helping with the move and was in the passenger seat as they made the less than one mile trip.
After parking in front of the new apartment, at least 10 officers with the Los Angeles Police Department swarmed the vehicle. Some had handguns drawn and others were armed with long guns, the suit stated, as an LAPD helicopter flew overhead.
Balsaver detailed the encounter in a post on Medium. She said police cars were blocking both ends of her new street and an officer parked behind her truck used his door as a "sort of shield." She said the officer was armed with a "huge rifle."
"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," she wrote, using her friend's nickname. "Other officers start getting out of their cars, equipping themselves with the same weapon."
Balsaver said she was told to throw the keys out of the truck's window and Sen was told to hold her hands out the open window. Balsaver was then instructed to exit the vehicle.
"I don’t want to get out. Guns are primed to attack me," she wrote. "I still have no idea why. He commands me to put my hands on my head and face my back to them. They don’t even have the decency to let me look at them?"
Balsaver said she got out of the truck and was told to lie on her stomach with her legs spread apart. She detailed how it was hard to hear the officers' commands over the helicopter and she feared she would be shot.
Sen was told to get out and open the back of the truck. She was then ordered to lie on the ground near Balsaver, according to the Medium post.
The lawsuit said that several officers approached the women with their guns drawn. Police "jammed" their knees into the women's backs as they were handcuffed, it said.
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This all happened in the middle of the street in front of Balsaver's new neighbors, according to the lawsuit.
It wasn't until Sen and Balsaver were in the back of separate police cars that they were told that the U-Haul had been reported stolen. After Balsaver's rental receipt was found in her purse, officers changed their tone.
"They soften, even joke with me. They were just armed to shoot, and now I’m supposed to joke with them?" Balsaver wrote. "This feels cruel and unjustified. ... They tease that I should demand free U-Haul services for a year."
U-Haul had reported the truck stolen, but told law enforcement several weeks prior to the incident that it had been returned, according to the lawsuit.
A police sergeant told the women that there was a mixup because officers were not trained on how to use the department's new computer system that lists currently stolen vehicles and ones that have been recovered.
The lawsuit names the city, LAPD Chief Michael Moore, two officers and a sergeant. It also includes 10 unnamed officers as defendants.
The officers could not be reached at phone numbers listed for them. U-Haul and the police union did not immediately return a request for comment.
The Los Angeles Police Department said that it does not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit said that the women have not received an apology from the police department. They are seeking an unspecified amount of damages.