Laguna granted qualified immunity in excessive-force case

A Laguna Beach police detective did not use excessive force or violate a Los Angeles County woman’s civil rights when he searched her home as part of an investigation of a crime, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled.

District Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell granted qualified immunity to the city of Laguna Beach and police Sgt. Robert Rahaeuser in a Los Angeles courtroom Aug. 30, according to a copy of the ruling provided by Laguna Beach City Atty. Phil Kohn.

O’Connell granted the city’s request for pre-trial summary judgment on two claims: that Rahaeuser used excessive force when he handcuffed 73-year-old Marilyn Injeyan and that he violated her civil rights by threat, intimidation or coercion when he searched her Rowland Heights home June 4, 2011.

Summary judgment is a procedural device used in civil litigation to avoid an unnecessary trial.

Injeyan’s attorney, Peter Williamson, said he will appeal the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I’m appalled at [O’Connell’s] ruling,” Williamson said. “To downplay the severity of injury my client suffered is contrary to well-established law in the 9th Circuit.”

Police had gone to Injeyan’s home to investigate any involvement her son might have had in a June 2011 incident in Laguna Beach, court records said.

In that case, an unidentified man in a black ski mask threw butyric acid into an apartment. Residents evacuated the neighborhood and a police officer was sent to the hospital with burning skin, eye irritation and trouble breathing.

Injeyan’s son, who is in his 40s, has not been charged in connection with the alleged crime, Williamson said.

Rahaeuser and Det. Natalie Leal went to Injeyan’s Rowland Heights home at 6:30 p.m. June 4, 2011 with a search warrant, the ruling said.

Injeyan, who was not armed, reported seeing bright lights and weapons pointed at her, according to the ruling.

Injeyan, a retired schoolteacher, said someone grabbed her arms from behind and forcibly lifted them while pulling them behind her back, the ruling said.

She later learned Rahaeuser grabbed her arms, according to court records.

Rahaeuser said Injeyan’s arms were raised in the air when he guided them to the small of her back, and 10 seconds elapsed from the time he entered the house to when he handcuffed her, the ruling said.

Injeyan was so terrified that she urinated on herself.

Injeyan’s son, Vahan Injeyan, was in the home, and police handcuffed him as well, Williamson said.

Vahan Injeyan, undergoing cancer treatment and living with his mother at the time, was not injured during the search, according to Williamson.

The search lasted three to four hours, according to court records.

Vahan Injeyan saw bruises on his mom’s wrists for the next several days, and for weeks Marilyn Injeyan felt intermittent shoulder pain, which worsened with time, court records said.

A doctor later diagnosed her with bilateral tears in both rotator cuffs, the first sign of any reported shoulder pain or discomfort, the ruling said.

Since the incident, Injeyan has had four shoulder surgeries and continues to receive medical treatment, according to court records.

“She is living in pain, and one of her shoulders is now inoperable,” Williamson said, citing the surgeon’s judgment.

Kohn disputes Marilyn Injeyan’s story that her rotator cuffs were torn as a result of Rahaeuser’s actions.

“We do not believe that to be the case,” Kohn said.

O’Connell ruled that Rahaeuser didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment’s constitutional guarantee against unreasonable seizures because “he had the authority to detain [Marilyn Injeyan] and he applied reasonable amount of force while handcuffing her,” the ruling said.

Rahaeuser was in a “tense and uncertain” situation as he investigated an act of “domestic terrorism,” O’Connell wrote.

“As he entered the home, he had no ability to predict whether there would be chemicals inside,” according to O’Connell. “Even if Sgt. Rahaeuser did not fear that [Marilyn Injeyan] posed a safety risk, it was reasonable to fear that [she] could dispose of key evidence.

“The court finds that force employed, handcuffing in a manner that elicited no complaints of pain or discomfort, was objectively reasonable when judged from the perspective of an officer on the scene who was executing a search warrant in connection with a crime of violence.”

After a time — Marilyn Injeyan described it as “long”; Williamson said it was about 20 minutes — Leal escorted her to the bathroom, removed the handcuffs and allowed her to change clothes in privacy, the ruling said.

Rahaeuser said it was “a few minutes,” according to the ruling.

Williamson will ask for an expedited appeal process in a written request, he said, citing Marilyn Injeyan’s age.

“The appeal process takes roughly two years from the notice to a decision,” Williamson said. “I’m confident we’ll get the decision overturned.”