Rehearing Denied for Family of Woman Who Died Shortly After Police Transport

San Diego Police patch on shoulder Photo Source: Adobe Stock Image

The minor son, father and personal representative of a woman who died nine days after her arrest and transport to a police station cannot get a rehearing on their civil case against the City of San Diego and several of its police officers. The plaintiffs charged that the woman’s death was the result of constitutional violations by law enforcement personnel. The Ninth Circuit ruled that there was not enough evidence to show that the officers were the “moving force” behind any constitutional violations.

In November 2018, a Cadillac with three passengers was stopped by police because of an expired registration. The two men in the front seat had prior convictions for drug offenses. The deceased, Aleah Jenkins, was sitting in the back. When the officers investigated her, they found an outstanding warrant for a methamphetamine offense. They arrested her, placed her in handcuffs, and moved her to a police cruiser that had arrived to assist the other officers.

As soon as Jenkins got into the cruiser, she vomited. One of the officers called for paramedics and asked her if she was “detoxing.” She denied it and said she was pregnant. The paramedics were canceled. The ride to the police station took more than an hour. Jenkins asked for a bathroom break, said she did not want to go to jail, and was inconsistent when responding to the officers’ questions. Throughout her transport, Jenkins’ medical condition worsened. She laid down in the backseat, groaned and screamed for help.

When they got to the police station, one of the officers told her she was making herself hyperventilate. The officers moved her out of the cruiser, placed her on the pavement, and fingerprinted her to confirm her identity since she had once been arrested on her twin sister’s warrant. The police confirmed her identity and placed her back into the vehicle. Eleven minutes later, they found her unconscious. They then called for paramedics, and one of the officers began CPR. Despite their efforts, Jenkins became comatose, was transported to a hospital, and died nine days later. An amended complaint says she had overdosed, but it does not include a cause of death.

In a 2-1 decision on August 2, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the order of the District Court for the Southern District of California that had dismissed motions for a rehearing by plaintiffs. The court ruled that the police officers are protected by qualified immunity because a review of the day’s events and bodycam footage led them to conclude that there was insufficient evidence to show that the police committed any constitutional violations.

The opinion was written by Senior Circuit Judge D. Michael Fisher, with a concurrence by Judge Patrick J. Bumatay and a dissent by Judge Paul J. Watford. It begins with the procedural history that commences in November 2019 when plaintiffs filed suit. A motion to dismiss by the City of San Diego and other defendants was granted with leave to amend. Plaintiffs did file an amended complaint, alleging “Unreasonable Search and Seizure – Denial of Medical Care” by the police, municipal liability against the City, and “Deprivation of Life Without Due Process” against two of the officers. Bodycam videos were incorporated by reference.

Defendants again moved to dismiss and the District Court granted their motion with prejudice. This time, they reviewed the bodycam footage and found that plaintiffs’ first amended complaint “failed to state a plausible cause of action for denial of medical care under the Fourteenth Amendment.” The Judge also explained that the officers are entitled to qualified immunity.

Similarly, plaintiffs’ second cause of action “failed to identify any municipal policy or custom as to the cause of the alleged violation.” The third cause of action, for “Deprivation of Life,” was found to duplicate the claim for denial of medical care. Plaintiff J.K.J. filed a timely appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

Justice Fisher first found that the District Court had “acted within its discretion when it dismissed plaintiffs’ contention that the “Court improperly allowed (bodycam evidence) to override his written allegations.”

The opinion then turned to plaintiffs’ core arguments, the “municipal liability claims” that argued the police “violated Jenkins’ constitutional rights by employing offices with “dangerous propensities” and failing to adequately train and supervise (them), and by failing to ensure that arrestees receive proper medical care.” It concluded that plaintiffs’ amended complaint “fell short” of the required constitutional standard. They failed to prove Jenkins was “deprived of a constitutional right,” that San Diego had a policy that demonstrated “deliberate indifference to Jenkins constitutional right,” and that the City’s policy “was the moving force behind the constitutional violation.” The record simply did not support plaintiffs’ claims.

The court went on to affirm the officers’ qualified immunity because none of their actions were unlawful and because they did not treat Jenkins’ medical problems with indifference. Indeed, Jenkin’s false statements about a pregnancy are the reason the initial desire to call paramedics was canceled. The officer showed concern for her, and he asked her multiple questions and said, “We just wanna make sure you’re gonna be ok.” Plaintiffs’ precedents were distinguished and none showed circumstances “where an officer had to grapple with how to handle a detainee who exhibited signs of medical distress but explained them away.”

Judge Watford’s dissent argued that the majority opinion “offers a truncated and highly sanitized account of the events giving rise to this lawsuit…” while also ignoring video evidence. In great detail, he described the events that occurred from the time of the traffic stop to the arrival of the paramedics. He wrote that “no reasonable officer” could have concluded that Jenkin’s medical condition was “a ruse.” Unlike the majority, he also mentions that Jenkins was a “young African-American woman,” perhaps hinting that her race played some part in her treatment.

The dissent summarizes that some of the officers’ actions “were objectively unreasonable and thus violated the government legal standards under both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.” He also disputes the officers’ eligibility for qualified immunity, which he says should be unavailable in cases where there is a mistake of fact. He says that there was no way that the fact of her serious medical emergency could have been missed. Also, it was an unreasonable mistake of fact to believe that she was faking her symptoms. He concludes that the Ninth Circuit should have reversed and remanded.

Maureen Rubin, J.D.
Maureen Rubin, J.D.
Maureen Rubin is an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University where she taught media law and writing and served as an administrator. Previously, she worked in the Carter White House and U.S. Congress, She is a graduate of Catholic University Law School and holds a Master's from USC.
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