“Our Courts, Our Fight is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties and the need for the Senate to confirm President Biden’s federal court nominees to help counteract these effects . Supreme and appellate court cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Ninth Circuit judge Patrick Bumatay cast the deciding vote to affirm the dismissal of a complaint contending that a police officer caused the death of a young black woman by failing to take appropriate action when she experienced an acute medical emergency while he was transporting her to police headquarters. The November 2021 decision was in JKJ v City of San Diego.
Aleah Jenkins was arrested at a traffic stop when police discovered that there was an outstanding warrant for her on a drug offense. Officer Lawrence Durbin was responsible for taking her to police headquarters, about an hour’s drive away. As alleged in the complaint filed on behalf of her son and supported by a bodycam video, Jenkins suffered acute medical distress during the drive. This was evidenced by repeated vomiting, groaning, breathing irregularly, screaming for help, partly tumbling out of the car when Durbin stopped to check on her, and lying almost unconscious on the floor of the car when they arrived at headquarters and beginning to twitch and shake. Apparently because he believed Jenkins was “faking” because she “doesn’t want to go to jail,” as he told another officer, Durbin did not summon medical help or take other appropriate action during the entire trip and for a considerable period after they arrived, during which time he tried to fingerprint her. Finally, after checking Jenkins’ pulse and finding none and agreeing she was unconscious, Durbin attempted CPR and called paramedics. Jenkins never regained consciousness, fell into a coma, and died nine days later.
A federal complaint was filed against Durbin and others on behalf of Jenkins’ son for failing to summon medical care for her and causing her death. A district court dismissed the complaint, without even any discovery, claiming that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity and that there was no “plausible claim” for relief. The case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
Trump judge Patrick Bumatay cast the deciding vote to uphold the lower court ruling. According to the majority, the complaint failed to adequately allege “objective unreasonableness” or “objective deliberate indifference” by Durbin because he could have concluded that Jenkins was not really in distress, and there was no previous case that “clearly established” that his behavior was unreasonable, so that qualified immunity applied.
Judge Paul Watford strongly dissented as to the claim against Durbin. He criticized the majority for offering a “sanitized” account of what happened, violating the principle that an appellate court must “accept the plaintiff’s factual allegations as true” at this stage, and turning a “blind eye” to what the video graphically depicted. In particular, Watford explained, the complaint “plausibly alleged” that “no reasonable officer in Officer Durbin’s shoes” could have considered Ms. Jenkins’ “rapidly deteriorating medical condition as some kind of ruse.” It should be up to a jury rather than two judges, Watford indicated, to decide whether Durbin’s conduct and failure to summon help became “objectively unreasonable” during the drive or “certainly upon arrival” at police headquarters. As to qualified immunity, Watford continued, prior cases have ruled that an unreasonable “mistake of fact,” such as Durbin’s view that Jenkins was faking, cannot warrant such immunity and, as in many other cases involving Trump judges, the majority was wrong in insisting that a case must be cited that found a constitutional violation in “directly analogous circumstances.” Watford concluded that the court should have reversed the decision and allowed the case to proceed against Durbin.
Instead, as a result of Trump judge Bumatay’s deciding vote, Aleah Jenkins’ son will have no chance to get justice with respect to a police officer who caused his mother’s untimely death. And another troubling precedent has been set to immunize police officers from any accountability for wrongful conduct. The case is yet another example of why it is so important, as part of our fight for our courts, for the Senate to confirm federal judges who will seek to hold all government officials to account when they violate people’s rights.