Appeals court to reconsider dismissed lawsuit over woman’s in-custody death after La Jolla arrest
A federal judge dismissed a suit against the San Diego Police Department brought by Aleah Jenkins’ son, and a three-judge panel upheld the dismissal. But a majority of 9th Circuit judges voted to rehear the case.
A federal appeals court has voted to rehear a previously dismissed lawsuit filed by the son of a woman who died in 2018 while in San Diego police custody following her arrest in La Jolla.
Aleah Mariah Jenkins, 24, fell into a coma after being arrested in late November 2018. She died the following week in a hospital, and authorities later ruled her death an accidental drug overdose. San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan declined to charge the officers involved.
Jenkins’ young son, identified only by his initials, filed a lawsuit through his father in 2019 against the city, the San Diego Police Department and the officers involved in Jenkins’ death.
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U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo dismissed the lawsuit in 2020, ruling in part that two named officers — Lawrence Durbin and Jason Taub — were shielded by qualified immunity, which protects government officials, including police, from lawsuits by saying they can only be held responsible if it can be shown their conduct violated “clearly established” federal law or constitutional rights at the time.
In a 2-1 ruling the following year, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Bencivengo’s dismissal.
Attorneys for Jenkins’ son appealed the ruling, and in an order issued Feb. 17, 9th Circuit Chief Judge Mary Murguia wrote that a majority of the 9th Circuit’s non-recused active judges had voted for a rehearing in front of a panel of 11 judges.
The hearing is scheduled for the third week of June in Seattle.
San Diego police officers arrested Jenkins during a traffic stop in La Jolla on a misdemeanor warrant that accused her of methamphetamine possession. During the encounter, she became sick and vomited, according to police and body camera footage.
Officers called for medics, then canceled the call after Jenkins told them she was pregnant and had an upset stomach.
The police footage shows Jenkins become gradually sicker throughout the interaction and the ride to downtown police headquarters, which lasted an extended period because of evening rush-hour traffic. Durbin at one point stopped his vehicle and got out to check on Jenkins.
At police headquarters, officers forced Jenkins out of the back of a police cruiser, then returned her to the back seat, where she stopped breathing while left alone for more than 11 minutes, according to the lawsuit. Officers then performed CPR before calling for paramedics, who took Jenkins to a hospital.
The majority opinion of the three-judge panel that upheld the dismissal said in part that “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.”
In his dissent, Judge Paul Watford wrote that the majority opinion “offers a truncated and highly sanitized account of the events” and that “no reasonable officer in Officer Durbin’s shoes could have viewed Ms. Jenkins’ rapidly deteriorating medical condition as some kind of ruse.” ◆