Have you heard the one about the sheriff who walked into a high school? He frisked 900 students without a warrant and (in the majority of cases) without probable cause.
No, that’s not a joke, and no, that’s not the least bit funny. Unfortunately, it’s the reality of every student present at Worth County High School on April 14, 2017.
I first came across this situation this weekend in The Washington Post, though WALB has been covering it steadily in southwest Georgia for months. It seems that last March, some high school students were arrested on drug charges stemming from an incident that happened off campus. They told the sheriff, Jeff Hobby, that there were drugs at Worth County High School. Sheriff Hobby contacted the Sylvester Police Department, and the interim police chief, Gary Price, conducted a search on March 17. Chief Price found no drugs.
Unsatisfied and undeterred, Sheriff Hobby contacted Worth County High School to let them know there would be a search by his office “after spring break.” This brings us to April 14.
Sheriff Hobby told the school he would be searching 13 students who were suspected of trafficking drugs. Only three were at school that day, so they were called to an administrator’s office and searched. All of this was completely legal (and pretty standard).
Here’s where it goes awry.
According to student accounts and the accounts of school administrators, two dozen sheriff’s deputies entered the school, and the sheriff ordered the principal to put the school on lock down. Cell phones were seized to maintain a “blackout,” and for the next four hours, all students on campus were patted down. A lawsuit contends that students were taken from classrooms, spread against walls, and frisked, with many reports of deputies touching breasts and genitalia. Students were not allowed to leave, nor could they contact their parents. By the sheriff’s admission to WALB on April 17, one of his deputies got too aggressive in searching the students and “corrective action” was taken to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. However, the lawsuit has statements from students who were aggressively searched in different parts of the building, so it sounds like maybe it was more than one…
Can you guess what deputies recovered from the search? Not any drugs or even drug paraphernalia. Yes, seriously.
Hobby contends that the searches of all students were legal because an administrator was present. School officials disagree, stating that it was a warrantless search, and no case for probable cause for students beyond the initial 13 identified was presented. In a couple of articles I’ve read, the school district’s lawyer, Tommy Coleman, and the superintendent, Lawrence Walters, stated they believed what was happening was wrong, and it was far beyond any drug searches previously conducted by either the city police or county deputies. Coleman said to The Washington Post that school officials had no authority to stop the search.
I checked in with a couple of lawyers and a former sheriff’s deputy because that last statement didn’t sit well with me. Here’s what I learned: Georgia law constitutionally calls for the office of sheriff in each of our 159 counties and names the sheriff as the highest-ranking county official. That means that sheriffs’ offices are not departments of the county or city governments, and they are not beholden to them. (That would of course include the school district.) On the other hand, as a constitutional office, sheriffs are elected by the public to four-year terms and are thus beholden to their constituents to uphold the law. Yes, Georgia sheriffs have broad authority because of the way the office is laid out in the state constitution, but the officer and his or her deputies are also limited by the U.S. Constitution, and this could (and probably will) be classified as “unreasonable search and seizure” by the courts. The school system might not have authority over the sheriff’s office in Worth County, but as the only adults present during the incident — other than high school seniors who had had their 18th birthday — school administrators could have spoken up as constituents of the sheriff. I’ve learned that’s atypical, particularly in sparsely populated counties, as school officials prefer to have a cordial relationship with the sheriff’s office specifically because of its very broad authority. And I doubt, given what’s known about the search, students were allowed to refuse a search if they even knew they had the right to do so.
Separately, there has been no explanation for what the corrective action taken for the deputy was. By April 18, 30 parents had filed civil complaints with the Sylvester Police Department regarding the sheriff’s search. The Georgia Board of Education also received complaints but had no jurisdiction to act on them.
The NAACP and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation have now separately visited Sylvester to take statements from students who were searched. The GBI has at least one investigation open on the incident. The lawyers representing nine students, Mark Begnaud of Horsley Begnaud LLC and Crystal Redd of the Southern Center for Human Rights, hope to get the lawsuit reclassified as a class action lawsuit so they can represent all of the students affected.
There’s precedence for the class action route. A similar incident occurred at Stratford High School in Goose Creek, South Carolina, in 2003. In 2006, the sheriff’s office reached a class action settlement with payouts between $6,000 and $12,000 per student for the 150 students whose rights were violated. Imagine how expensive this is going to get for Worth County if history repeats itself.