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Appeals court upholds dismissal of suit in woman's San Diego police custody death

San Diego police cruiser suv
Posted at 9:12 PM, Nov 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-16 00:12:25-05

SAN DIEGO (CNS) — A federal appeals court panel Monday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by the son of a San Diego woman who died while in police custody.

In a 2-1 ruling, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a federal judge's dismissal of the suit brought by the son of 24-year-old Aleah Jenkins, who passed out while being booked into jail, fell into a coma and died nine days after being arrested during a traffic stop on Nov. 27, 2018.

The suit alleged that during the ride to police headquarters, Jenkins repeatedly pleaded with officers to get her help, but police neglected to secure medical attention for her until they arrived at the police station, where she was found unconscious inside a police cruiser. She was transported to UCSD Medical Center's critical care unit, where she fell into a coma and died Dec. 6, 2018.

A District Attorney's Office investigation concluded that she died due to "extremely high levels of methamphetamine in her system," and that the officers involved would not be criminally charged in her death.

Jenkins' death prompted public protests, with her family alleging the officers ignored the severity of her condition, delaying possibly life-saving medical care.

The majority opinion written by Judge D. Michael Fisher, which was joined by Judge Patrick Bumatay, stated that the court could not say it was unreasonable for the officers to conclude that paramedics were not needed to treat Jenkins.

Judge Paul Watford dissented, saying the lawsuit "plausibly alleged" that Jenkins died "because the officer responsible for transporting her to police headquarters took no action when she experienced an acute medical emergency."

Jenkins was a passenger in a vehicle that was pulled over for expired registration, during which time officers believed she had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant for possession of methamphetamine.

While still at the scene of the traffic stop, Jenkins fell ill and vomited inside a police cruiser. Paramedics were called, but the call was canceled after Jenkins was asked whether she was withdrawing from drugs, and she said, "No, I'm sick, my stomach is turning," according to the ruling, which also stated that Jenkins said she was pregnant.

According to the lawsuit, officers neglected to take her to a hospital, passed three ambulances on the one-hour drive from La Jolla to downtown police headquarters and did not secure any medical assistance for her despite "clear signs that (she) needed medical attention."

During the drive, Jenkins said she did not want to go to jail, asked for water and a bathroom break, and groaned and screamed on several occasions, the ruling states.

At one point, Officer Lawrence Durbin stopped the cruiser, opened the rear door and patted her, saying, "I need you to stay awake," to which Jenkins responded that she was sick. When she screamed again, he told her to "knock it off," the ruling states.

Upon arrival at the station, she was found face down in the backseat. The ruling states she screamed and asked for help, to which Jenkins remarked to another officer, "She doesn't want to go to jail." She was fingerprinted as she lay on her side and left in the cruiser for about 11 minutes, after which she was found unconscious.

The majority opinion states, "This case involves a detainee who exhibited signs of medical distress but also obscured the seriousness of those signs with statements about being pregnant, not ingesting drugs and wanting to avoid jail."

Watford, who said the majority opinion "offers a truncated and highly sanitized account of the events," wrote the lawsuit's allegations were reasonable in stating that "no reasonable officer in Officer Durbin's shoes could have viewed Ms. Jenkins' rapidly deteriorating medical condition as some kind of ruse."

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