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Crime News

Appeals Court Upholds Dismissal Of Lawsuit Filed After California Woman Lapses Into Coma In Police Custody

Aleah Jenkins fell into a coma while in police custody in November of 2018, and died nine days later. This week, a federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit filed against police over her death.

By Constance Johnson
Police Cars G

It all started during a routine traffic stop in San Diego, California on Nov. 27, 2018. Aleah Jenkins, 24, was taken into custody and became ill while in the back of a patrol car. She fell into a coma and died nine days later. About a year later, lawyers on behalf of her then 6-year-old son filed a wrongful death lawsuit against police, which was later dismissed.

On Monday, in a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of that lawsuit claiming the officer had qualified immunity and was not liable.

The lawsuit alleged that police repeatedly ignored cries for help from Jenkins, a Black woman. The arrest was captured on a body camera worn by Officer Lawrence Durbin.

San Diego police officers pulled over a car with expired tags in which Jenkins was a passenger. Officers learned that she had an outstanding warrant for her arrest for a prior methamphetamine offense, according to the ruling. She was asked to step outside of the car. She placed her hands behind her back and was handcuffed. She was told to get into the back of a patrol and did so without any assistance.

During a search of the car, police found “empty wads of plastic wrap commonly used for drug sales,” according to the ruling.

Jenkins was then asked to get out of the patrol car and walk to Durbin’s patrol car. While sitting in the back of Durbin’s patrol car, as she waited to leave the scene, Jenkins vomited repeatedly.

Durbin asked Jenkins why she was throwing up. She said she was sick and continued to vomit. Durbin asked if she was “withdrawing.” Another officer asked if she was “detoxing.”

She told them: “No, I’m sick, my stomach is turning.”

Durbin asked the other officer to call paramedics, but the call was canceled after Jenkins told Durbin she was pregnant. She was not pregnant.

According to court documents, Jenkins had once been arrested on her twin sister’s warrant, so Durbin had to take her to police headquarters for fingerprinting to confirm her identity.

“Roughly 20 minutes into the drive, however, she begins groaning and breathing irregularly. … A few minutes later, Jenkins begins intermittently screaming and moaning for more than two minutes. Five minutes after that … Ms. Jenkins’s continual groaning and, screaming and panting increases and becomes louder,” according to court documents.

A short time later, she screamed, “Please help me, please help me!”  Durbin asked her “What’s going on?” He then turns around and uses his flashlight to check on her. He said to himself, “Alright, still breathing,” according to the the lawsuit.

A short time later, Jenkins screamed, “Help me please.” He replied: “Knock it off.” She continued to beg for help, according to the court documents. By the time they arrive at the police station, Jenkins’s condition had deteriorated. Eventually, paramedics arrive on the scene.

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."

But in a sharply worded dissent Judge Paul Watford wrote the majority opinion: "offers a truncated and highly sanitized account of the event" and that ”no reasonable officer in Officer Durbin's shoes could have viewed Ms. Jenkins' rapidly deteriorating medical condition as some kind of ruse."

The case drew intense scrutiny and protest. An investigation by the District Attorney’s Office found that Jenkins died from “as much as 17 times a lethal dose” of methamphetamine in her system. No criminal charges were filed against the officers.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jenkins’s son by his father.