Drug search set­tle­ment: $3 mil­lion

850 stu­dents in S. Ga. who were searched would get money.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Brad Schrade brad.schrade@ajc.com

A south­west Ge­or­gia sheriff ’s or­der to con­duct an in­va­sive drug search of hun­dreds of stu­dents at Worth County High School will cost $3 mil­lion un­der a pro­posed set­tle­ment an­nounced Tues­day in a fed­eral civil rights law­suit.

The set­tle­ment will go to ap­prox­i­mately 850 stu­dents who were at the school on April 14 and sub­jected to the search or­dered by Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby. The sheriff or­dered his deputies to lock down the school as they sub­jected the en­tire stu­dent body to drug searches. The boys and girls were or­dered to leave their class­rooms and line up with their hands against the wall and legs spread. Deputies searched their cloth­ing and bod­ies, and some stu­dents said they felt sex­u­ally vi­o­lated by of­fi­cers. No drugs were found, and the case drew na­tional head­lines be­cause of the bizarre na­ture of the search.

“We hope that this mul­ti­mil­lion set­tle­ment will send the mes­sage to law en­force­ment of­fi­cials ev­ery­where that abuse of power will not be tol­er­ated,” said Mark Beg­naud, an At­lanta civil rights at­tor­ney who rep­re­sented the stu­dents along­side the South­ern Cen­ter for Hu­man Rights.

The $3 mil­lion set­tle­ment is pend­ing ap­proval in fed­eral court,

The $3 mil­lion set­tle­ment is more than twice the an­nual bud­get of the county’s sheriff’s depart­ment.

and will be paid out from a cov­er­age agree­ment the county has with the As­so­ci­a­tion County Com­mis­sion­ers of Ge­or­gia.

The amount rep­re­sents a stag­ger­ing fig­ure for a small county of 20,700 res­i­dents. It’s more than twice the an­nual bud­get of the county’s sheriff’s depart­ment, which was $1.4 mil­lion in 2016, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures re­ported by the Carl Vin­son In­sti­tute of Gov­ern­ment at UGA. The county’s an­nual bud­get is a lit­tle over $10 mil­lion.

The set­tle­ment is the max­i­mum amount cov­ered by the in­sur­ance pol­icy for the sheriff ’s depart­ment and will pay­out be­tween $1,000 and $6,000 per stu­dent. Stu­dents who were sub­jected to more in­va­sive searches will get higher pay­outs. Any left­over set­tle­ment money, af­ter 15 per­cent at­tor­ney fees, will go into a fund to help lo­cal high schools stu­dents.

“This sit­u­a­tion has never been about com­pen­sa­tion,” said Amaryl­lis Cole­man, whose daugh­ter was one of the stu­dents who said she felt sex­u­ally vi­o­lated by the deputies. “It has al­ways been about our daugh­ter and her civil rights be­ing vi­o­lated. My hus­band and I see first­hand how that search has trau­ma­tized our daugh­ter psy­cho­log­i­cally and med­i­cally.”

The set­tle­ment is the lat­est twist in a case that stunned the small com­mu­nity east of Al­bany when it learned that hun­dreds of teenagers were not al­lowed to con­tact their par­ents dur­ing the four-hour ordeal. The in­ci­dent was cap­tured by high-res­o­lu­tion school sur­veil­lance video.

Fe­male stu­dents said deputies in­serted their fin­gers in­side their bras, touch­ing them and ex­pos­ing parts of their breasts in front of other stu­dents. Other girls said deputies touched their un­der­wear and gen­i­tal area, plac­ing their hands in­side the waist­band of their un­der­wear or up their dresses. Male stu­dents ac­cused deputies of touch­ing their gen­i­tal ar­eas.

The na­ture of the search has drawn wide­spread con­dem­na­tion for be­ing a gross vi­o­la­tion of the stu­dents’ con­sti­tu­tional rights. Deputies found no drugs in­side the school.

“The stu­dents’ voices have been heard,” said Crys­tal Redd, an at­tor­ney with the South­ern Cen­ter for Hu­man Rights,” They took steps to en­sure that these il­le­gal searches would not go un­no­ticed.”

If a fed­eral judge ap­proves the set­tle­ment, the sheriff ’s le­gal trou­bles do not go away. He and two of his deputies face crim­i­nal charges af­ter a Worth grand jury in­dicted them last month. No trial date has been set, but the sheriff faces po­ten­tial prison time if con­victed of vi­o­la­tion of oath of of­fice, false im­pris­on­ment — both felonies — as well as sex­ual bat­tery, a mis­de­meanor.

Gov. Nathan Deal sus­pended the sheriff on Mon­day pend­ing the out­come of the crim­i­nal case.

Hobby’s crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­ney, Nor­man Crowe Jr., did not re­turn phone mes­sages be­fore dead­line. He has pre­vi­ously said Hobby vi­o­lated no laws and would be cleared at trial.

Sheriff Hobby has said lit­tle pub­licly about the search since it be­came con­tro­ver­sial.

Just days af­ter the search, the sheriff de­fended his ac­tions and told Al­bany tele­vi­sion sta­tion WALB-TV he was look­ing for drugs be­cause he sus­pected they were present. A search by the Sylvester Po­lice Depart­ment just weeks ear­lier failed to turn up drugs, but the sheriff said it wasn’t thor­ough enough.

Hobby ini­tially en­tered the school with a tar­get list of 13 stu­dents, but the search quickly evolved into a school­wide lock-down. Nine stu­dents sub­jected to the search filed a fed­eral civil rights law­suit in June, with the help of the South­ern Cen­ter for Hu­man Rights and at­tor­ney Beg­naud’s At­lanta law firm.

District At­tor­ney Paul Bow­den, whose cir­cuit in­cludes Worth County, sent a let­ter to Deal af­ter Hobby’s in­dict­ment out­lin­ing the case. It said Hobby failed to halt the in­tru­sive body searches of hun­dreds of high schools stu­dents even af­ter one deputy ex­pressed con­cerns about the search meth­ods, ac­cord­ing to Bow­den’s let­ter.

Hobby ad­mit­ted to in­ves­ti­ga­tors that one of his fe­male deputies ex­pressed con­cern about an­other deputy’s search tac­tics, but the sheriff left it to her to ad­dress with her col­league, the let­ter said. The sheriff told in­ves­ti­ga­tors he wit­nessed the same deputy con­duct­ing a search in a man­ner that he claims he did not di­rect, but the sheriff did noth­ing to stop it.

The sheriff “by his own ad­mis­sion failed to take any ac­tion to ad­dress this is­sue,” ac­cord­ing to the let­ter.

From the be­gin­ning, spec­u­la­tion has spread across Worth County that the strange search — one of the stark­est cases of law en­force­ment over­reach in re­cent Ge­or­gia history — had some thing to do with Sheriff Hobby’s son, Zachary Lewis Hobby. His ar­rest last month on an un­re­lated drug charge of pos­ses­sion of mar­i­juana with in­tent to dis­trib­ute re­newed that spec­u­la­tion.

Zachary, 17, had been a stu­dent at Worth County High School for part of last year, but was not en­rolled at the school at the time of the April search.

Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.