A warrantless drug search of all 900 students at a southern Georgia high school has brought a multi-million-dollar court settlement to be paid to the students, and a grand jury indictment for the county sheriff and two deputies.
Early one mid-April morning, the students and staff of Worth County High School were suddenly told that their school had been put on lockdown, and all 40 members of the county sheriff’s office, aided by police from several nearby towns, spent the next four hours going through the school. They demanded students hand over their cellphones and submit to being searched.
Sheriff Jeff Hobby did not have a search warrant, but he did have a target list of 13 students suspected of using drugs (only three of them were actually in school that day, though, and they were separated from the other students).
For the rest of the student body, however, deputies led them from class into hallways, lining up the boys and girls on opposite sides. The students were then directed to place their hands high on the wall, and spread their feet wide apart, for “pat-down” searches.
Deputies, only some of them wearing gloves, ran their hands over the students, both over and under their outer clothing. In some cases, they went under the students’ clothes or even removed some parts of their underclothing. By the time all students had been searched, the school-wide sweep had found absolutely no drugs or drug paraphernalia.
But that was far from the end of the matter. By the start of June, nine students ranging in age between 15 and 18 (and the parents or guardians for those who were minors) had filed a federal class-action lawsuit charging the sheriff, four named deputies and 25 more unnamed ones with having violated the students’ civil rights.
The body searches, the lawsuit claimed, violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, since there were no individualized grounds for suspecting these students of drug possession or any other crime. It also alleged that in the searches, some deputies left some students partly naked, or touched breasts or genitals of those being searched. As a result, the plaintiffs suffered “anxiety, embarrassment, and humiliation,” as well as fear, shame and emotional distress.
That case has now apparently been resolved, with a proposed settlement is awaiting approval by the presiding judge (at $3 million, the amount of the settlement — to be distributed to the students — is more than double the sheriff department’s annual budget and almost a third of the small county’s total annual budget). Even before that, however, Sheriff Hobby was suspended from his post by Gov. Nathan Deal’s executive order. Shortly thereafter, a grand jury which had been looking into the school search handed up indictments of Sheriff Hobby and two deputies.
Hobby was charged with one misdemeanor, sexual battery, and two felonies, false imprisonment and violating his oath of office; the deputies face fewer but similar charges. The governor also appointed a review committee to examine how the sheriff’s office has been managed since the indictments; the committee has recommended Hobby’s dismissal.