Jason Fenwick and attorney Jeff Chambliss
Jason Lamont Fenwick of Lompoc, a former Lyft driver accused of sexually assaulting a rider in November 2018 after dropping her at a Nipomo home, stands trial in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. Fenwick sits next to defense attorney Jeff Chambliss as he listens to testimony. (Laura Dickinson / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)

Testimony began Tuesday in the trial of an ex-Lyft driver from Lompoc who is accused of sexually assaulting his customer after taking the intoxicated woman from a DUI stop to a home in Nipomo last year.

Despite the alleged attacks being captured on in-home security surveillance footage, which the prosecution intends to play for the jury, the former rideshare company employee’s attorney told jurors in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Tuesday that his client believed the sexual activity was consensual.

Jason Lamont Fenwick, 52, has pleaded not guilty to three felonies, one of which — assault with intent to commit a sex crime during the commission of a burglary — carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

Fenwick also faces a misdemeanor charge of unauthorized invasion of privacy for allegedly taking photographs of the victim as she reportedly lay unconscious in bed.

He’s been in custody at the San Luis Obispo County Jail since his arrest Nov. 4, 2018. The case has led to a civil lawsuit against Lyft for alleged negligent hiring practices filed by the alleged victim, referred to in San Luis Obispo Superior Court records as Jane Doe.

Fenwick appeared in court in a crisp collared dress shirt Tuesday, and appeared engaged in the proceedings, taking notes, and conferring periodically with his attorney, Jeff Chambliss.

Jury selection began late last week. The entire trial is expected to last until approximately Dec. 6; jurors have next week off for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Officer Ordered Woman a Lyft

The Sheriff’s Office previously said the woman was dropped off by Fenwick at a Nipomo home around midnight Nov. 3, 2018, and woke up the next morning with discomfort.

Fenwick was arrested after sheriff’s detectives interviewed him at the Lompoc Police Station under the ruse that he was the victim of identity theft.

After denying that he had any sexual contact with the woman, Fenwick allegedly admitted to a consensual sexual encounter when investigators confronted him with supposed DNA evidence they said was found on the victim’s body, according to trial briefs filed by the DA’s Office.

On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Chris White told jurors in his opening statement that Jane Doe was out with her boyfriend drinking on the night of Nov. 2, 2018, in Arroyo Grande and Nipomo.

She “consumed a lot of alcohol” and became very inebriated, White said, and her boyfriend agreed to drive them both to his Nipomo home. 

However, on the way there, White said, the boyfriend was pulled over and arrested by Arroyo Grande police officers for DUI and taken to County Jail, where he would be held for a few hours. 

Because of what he called “fundamental fairness,” White said officers chose not to arrest Jane Doe — a now-stranded passenger who could not drive home herself — for being drunk in public, and instead asked her to call a friend.

“If (the officer) could get her home safely another way, he wanted to do that,” White said.

Without a friendly ride available, the officer suggested the woman order a Lyft to take her to the home.

But she was not able to function her cellphone’s Lyft application, so the officer, Timothy Ramirez, assisted her in ordering the ride, who turned out to be Fenwick.

“He was hoping she’d get home safe that night,” White said. “That, in hindsight, was his mistake.”

Ramirez, the first witness to testify after opening statements, agreed with White that it is “common practice” to release a reasonably intoxicated person to a ride-share service in lieu of taking them to jail, and that the drivers have been “well-trusted” by the department.

“I would have done everything in my power to make sure she got home safely instead of taking her to jail,” Ramirez said.

Video ‘Speaks for Itself’

White told jurors that after Fenwick took Jane Doe to the home, she re-emerged from the house to ask him to take her to pick up her boyfriend from jail, which Fenwick refused.

Instead, Fenwick walked her up to the bedroom, where video captured him assaulting her, before he walked out of the house, turned off the Lyft sign on his car, and returned inside.

There, he again assaulted her on the bed and took photographs with his cell phone of the half-naked victim, who was so intoxicated and unresponsive she “basically looked dead,” the prosecutor said.

After the second assault, White said, Fenwick left himself a $20 tip for the ride and exited the house.

The next day, Jane Doe couldn’t remember the previous night but “could tell that something sexual had happened” despite her boyfriend being in jail for the night.

She took a medical exam, and investigators were able to identify Fenwick as her driver.

After interviewing Fenwick under the guise of investigating an identity theft, they confronted him about whether he had any sexual contact with Jane Doe, which he initially denied.

After he was told a matching DNA sample was found near her crotch, Fenwick said he had been sick at the time and might have “coughed on her vagina.”

“Then Mr. Fenwick completely changed his story,” White said, and told officers that Jane Doe “was all over him” and that he was “fighting her off” before giving in to her advances.

When detectives told Fenwick they were arresting him for sexual assault, White said he responded, “Where’s the proof of that?”

Video Cameras in the Bedroom

White said the boyfriend’s security cameras captured the alleged crimes in the bedroom. 

“The whole thing was recorded, and it does not match up with what Mr. Fenwick told officers, not even close,” he said.

Deputy District Attorney Chris White gives his opening statement to the jury.

Deputy District Attorney Chris White gives his opening statement to the jury on Tuesday in the trial of Jason Lamont Fenwick of Lompoc, a former Lyft driver accused of sexually assaulting a rider in November 2018 after dropping her at a Nipomo home. San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge Matthew Guerrero listens in the background. (Laura Dickinson / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)

The boyfriend, whom The Tribune is not naming because it may identify the alleged victim of a sex crime, had not made Jane Doe aware that he had cameras inside the home, nor inside the bedroom where the two slept, White said.

In preparation for the trial, the District Attorney’s Office agreed to give the boyfriend immunity, in exchange for his testimony, from any incriminating statements he might give in the case should he be charged related to invasion of privacy in the future. 

The boyfriend testified later in the day Tuesday that he installed the cameras for security purposes after a break-in at his business. He admitted that he had “trust issues” with his girlfriend, but had made it clear the house contained a “high-end” security system. 

“However the video was created, it speaks for itself,” White said.

Fenwick allegedly showed a coworker one of the photos he took of Jane Doe, and the coworker called police.

The photos were not found in a subsequent search of the phone, White said. 

White told jurors that due to Fenwick’s defense that the encounter was consensual, they will have to decide whether Fenwick believed Jane Doe was capable of giving consent, and if so, whether that belief was reasonable.

A Gross Error

Defense attorney Chambliss told the jury during his opening statement that Fenwick is a father who was working at Cottage Hospital and drove for Lyft on his off-time for extra money. 

Chambliss contended that Fenwick had logged some 1,500 Lyft rides without a complaint against him.

He told the jury that Jane Doe was not as intoxicated as alleged at the time of the incident, and that witness testimony will show that she was speaking clearly, recalling her cell phone’s passwords, demonstrated she understood what was going on, and didn’t have trouble walking when she was talking to officers after her boyfriend’s arrest.

“Why was she not arrested (for drunk in public)?” Chambliss asked rhetorically. “Because she was not that drunk.”

In regard to the surveillance video, Chambliss said it will show Jane Doe moving around the house without effort, and leading Fenwick by the hand into the bedroom.

Chambliss said the woman pleaded with Fenwick to “stay with me,” to which Fenwick eventually agreed.

He conceded that his client “made a gross error,” when he photographed Jane Doe without her consent. 

A civil lawsuit associated with the criminal case filed by the alleged victim against Lyft, which she alleges does not adequately vet their drivers.

Since its filing, more plaintiffs have joined in on the lawsuit, which seeks an unspecified amount of damages exceeding $25,000.

A case management conference in that case is scheduled for February.

Testimony in Fenwick’s trial is scheduled to continue Wednesday.

Matt Fountain is a reporter for the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Contact him at mfountain@thetribunenews.com.