Earlier this year, the Worth County (GA) Sheriff's Department enraged an entire nation by subjecting the entire student body of a local high school to invasive pat downs. The reason for these searches? Sheriff Jeff Hobby believed drugs would be found on campus.
Invasive searches of students at Worth County High School in Sylvester are being investigated by the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights.
The Southern Center said Tuesday that hundreds of students at the South Georgia high school were subjected to a search conducted without a warrant. Some of the searches were “highly intrusive” and involved officers touching students’ genitals and breasts.
The Southern Center is raising questions about the legality of the search.
“The Sheriff’s search of Worth County High School students went far beyond what the law permits,” said SCHR attorney Crystal Redd. “The Sheriff had no authority to subject the entire student population to physical searches of their persons, and certainly none to search students in such an aggressive and inappropriate manner.”
The sheriff brought in drug-sniffing dogs and had his deputies frisk every single attending student. The sheriff claimed the searches were legal. And not just legal, but "necessary." The end result of the multiple invasions of personal privacy? Zero drugs, zero arrests.
No drugs were found in a search of Worth County High School Friday.
Perhaps Sheriff Hobby should have taken the results of a search performed a month earlier as indicative of future results.
The Sylvester Police Department did a search on March 17, and found no drugs.
Despite two negative search results, Sheriff Hobby still expressed a desire to search the school again.
When asked about that previous search that came up dry, Hobby said he didn't think that search was thorough, so he decided to do his own.
He said he believes there are drugs at the high school and the middle school, but also said that he will not do another search, due to response from community.
According to school policies, students may be searched if there's reasonable suspicion the student is in possession of an illegal item. The same rules apply to law enforcement, but they were ignored here. Sheriff Hobby claimed he could search any student he wanted to (in this case, all of them) simply because he was accompanied by a school administrator.
Hobby was wrong and is now facing some serious legal problems. First off, Hobby has been sued by several of the students frisked by his officers.
A federal civil rights lawsuit filed last week against a south Georgia sheriff offers new details of the bizarre school-wide search of hundreds of students where deputies allegedly touched girls’ breasts, vaginal areas and groped boys in their groins.
One of the nine Worth County High School students who filed the lawsuit, identified as K.P., told the AJC that the April 14 search was “very, very scary.” She said the incident was stuck in her memory and it colored the rest of her senior year.
The lawsuit also details how much time the Sheriff's Department wasted violating rights and failing to discover contraband.
[T]he sheriff and his deputies locked the high school down for more than four hours and conducted body searches of close to 800 students present in school that day...
This lawsuit is a problem for Sheriff Hobby, especially as it will be much more difficult for the sheriff and his deputies to avail themselves of immunity. Indictments have that sort of effect on immunity claims. [via Greg Doucette]
A south Georgia grand jury indicted Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby on Tuesday for sexual battery, false imprisonment and violation of oath of office after he ordered a school-wide search of hundreds of high school students. Deputies allegedly touched girls vaginas and breasts and groped boys in their groin area during the search at the Worth County High School April 14.
Two of Hobby’s deputies were also indicted Tuesday in connection with the case.
Somewhat ironically, the indicted sheriff's attorney is bemoaning the same grand jury system law enforcement loves when it's indicting civilians.
Under Georgia law, a police officer or sheriff accused of a crime related to their official duties can appear before a grand jury to give a statement. Private citizens facing criminal charges do not get this privilege. But the sheriff and his deputies chose not to invoke that privilege. All stayed out of the grand jury room. That’s at least in part due to a new law that curbed some of the unique privileges officers previously had to sway grand jurors.
Under a new law that took effect last year, officers would have been subject to cross examination and wouldn’t have been able to rebut statements made by prosecutors during that cross-examination.
“It’s not a balanced proceeding,” said Norman Crowe Jr., the sheriff’s attorney.
Well, of course it isn't. That's been obvious for years. But no one on the prosecutorial side has anything bad to say about it until they end up as grist for the grand jury mill.
Apparently, Sheriff Hobby is going to claim he's innocent because he didn't personally pat down any of the students. That may save him from the sexual battery charge, but it's not going to help him much with the other two: violation of oath of office and false imprisonment. Without the sheriff giving the orders, it's unlikely his deputies would have locked down a school and patted down 800 students.
Hobby's statements made in defense of the search -- all made pre-lawsuit and pre-indictment -- aren't going to help much either. He feels he's completely justified in performing en masse suspicionless searches of US citizens. They may have limited rights as minors and school attendees, but their rights do not vanish entirely once they walk on campus.
The whole debacle was an ugly abuse of Hobby's power. Preventing future abuses depends greatly on the judicial system's ability to hold the sheriff accountable for his actions. With Hobby in charge, the Worth County Sheriff's Department is unqualified to police itself. Whether or not he's convicted, he should be removed from office. His post-search comments show he's willing to violate rights of hundreds of people simultaneously to find contraband he swears exists, but has yet to actually discover.
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