The 900 Gropes

When news broke of Worth County, Georgia Sheriff Jeff Hobby’s execution of a mass frisk of 900 high school students, I was asked whether there was any conceivable lawful justification for this mass search. While the law allows for a search of students in school upon reasonable and articulable suspicion, rather than probable cause as would be required any other time, it seemed inconceivable that there could be reasonable suspicion of 900 students.

And, of course, there was not.

When asked about the pat down of students, and the notion of probable cause, Hobby said that as long as a school administrator was present, the personal search of the children was legal.

Maybe Hobby got his legal advice from a twitter lawyer. Maybe he just heard voices in his head. Regardless, this isn’t the law. Not even a little bit. One might question whether Hobby, a sheriff rather than a lawyer, should be expected to know the law, to adhere to the law. After all, he was protecting students from drugs and, to many, that’s an important goal. So maybe he misunderstood the limits of his authority. Stercus accidit.

Except Sheriff Hobby, with his deputies and dogs, wasn’t engaged in a heated discussion of the scope of his authority, the limits imposed by law. His guys had guns, and nobody was going to make him stop.

[Interim Worth County Superintendent Lawrence] Walters said in March Sheriff Jeff Hobby told him his department was going to do a drug search at the school after spring break.

“We did not give permission but they didn’t as for permission, he just said, the sheriff, that he was going to do it after spring break,” said Walters.

It’s unclear how many days there were between the time Walters was notified by Sheriff Hobby that Hobby intended to engage in unlawful conduct on school premises and March 17th, the date the searches were conducted, but it is clear that Walters did nothing to protect his students from being victimized by the sheriff. He didn’t give permission? That’s comforting.

A violation of the constitutional rights of students is bad, but the scale of it here was massive. Not one. Not ten. Nine hundred students? In for a dime, in for a dollar, but without the school’s permission. Not that they were asked, as if that relieves the school of its duty to protect its students.

But suit has now been filed by Mark Begnaud, adding a very different dimension to an already unconstitutional situation.

According to the complaint,

Defendants’ searches of students were intrusive, performed in an aggressive manner, and done in full view of other students.

For example:

a) Deputies ordered students to stand facing the wall with their hands and legs spread wide apart;b) Deputies touched and manipulated students’ breasts and genitals;

c) Deputies inserted fingers inside girls’ bras, and pulled up girls’ bras, touching and partially exposing their bare breasts.

d) Deputies touched girls’ underwear by placing hands inside the waistbands of their pants or reaching up their dresses;

e) Deputies touched girls’ vaginal areas through their underwear;

f) Deputies cupped or groped boys’ genitals and touched their buttocks through their pants.

g). Defendants had no warrant or other authority to perform a mass search on hundreds of public school children.

Is this a search or a sex crime painted in law enforcement colors?

Walters, the school superintendent, was unsurprisingly surprised.

From his experiences, the way Friday’s search was done unusual.

“Under no circumstances did we approve touching any students,” explained Walters.

It’s unclear what level of unconstitutional search Walters anticipated, which he was apparently willing to condone in his school, albeit without his permission. But this wasn’t merely a matter of students being “touched,” because there was a good chance the police would utilize that magic voodoo method where his 900 students would be searched without being touched?

Rather, a bunch of adults put hands on, fingers into, the areas of boys and girls that would get anyone else a decade in prison, and this happened over and over. Maybe not 900 times, but enough, with a school official present to oversee that the molestation was done . . . properly?

Amy Alkon asks one question that arises from this conduct:

Also, probably not a hard choice for those of you with kids: Would you rather have your daughter or son groped by some stranger cop or allow some kid with the butt of a joint in his backpack to go free?

This question can be framed within Blackstone’s ratio, or a challenge to the collateral consequences of the Drug War. It’s not a sufficient question, as it asks only about “your daughter or son,” and some parents might shrug off the touching, the violation of constitutional rights, because their fear of drugs overcomes their reason.

However, the next question is whether the touching of your child should be acceptable because some other parent harbors wild fear of drugs. Even if someone answers Amy’s question in the affirmative, are you willing to defer your responsibility for protecting your child to the fears and feelings of some other parent? Some school official? Some cop?

It’s good that Begnaud is suing, seeking class action status on behalf of the 900, but it hardly seems adequate in light of the fingers groping nubile bodies. These are crimes, and the perpetual question of who watches the watchers is implicated. The prosecutors in Worth County, Georgia, are in a tough position, as their sheriff and his deputies (and others) molested children illegally and unlawfully. Are they now enablers of child molestation? You’re damn right, they are.

And despite Superintendent Walters’ gertruding, his job wasn’t to not give permission for the violation of the Constitution to occur under his watch, in his home, but to protect the students in his care from being sexually molested. His wormy reaction, that he didn’t give permission, is more than inadequate; he left his students to the mercies of molesters and did nothing, absolutely nothing, to protect them. His hands are filthy as well.

25 thoughts on “The 900 Gropes

  1. albeed

    Outrage is not a strong enough word to demonstrate what I really think about the occurrence of this mass molestation. I wonder why the nearby county’s wonder dogs weren’t used (at least as an excuse) to establish probable cause to limit the molestation, or several of the 150 or so highly state trained Georgia drug sniffing cops.

    Oh well, I am sure that in the minds of the molesters it was OK because men deputies searched boys and women deputies searched girls. The hard question in today’s world is, who searched the transgendered student(s).

    Not only is there the first rule of policing, but the first rule of prosecutors and judges, that they are able to go home to dinner – with the protection of the police and delay any actions until hopefully everyone forgets.

    1. SHG Post author

      It would be nice to hear from the cops on this one, how they feel about sticky fingers in teenagers underwear and what to do about it. For all the bravado about their heroics, will they speak out against this with any serious solutions?

  2. Norahc

    Not only would anyone else who touched children this way get a long prison sentence, they’d likely spend the rest of their lives on as registered sex offenders. Even if the children touched each other that way, there would be lot more serious consequences than a possible civil suit.

  3. JAV

    When asked about the pat down of students, and the notion of probable cause, Hobby said that as long as a school administrator was present, the personal search of the children was legal.

    Because I can; the justification of thugs.

  4. anslinger

    More evidence that the war on drugs and moral panics, in general, are the domain of the worst people.

  5. kemn

    Any bets on nothing serious happening to the Sheriff, because “it’s to protect kids!”

    Never mind protecting them from being pawed by cops. Never mind protecting them from having their civil rights violated. Never mind protecting them from this happening in public.

    If anything like this happens to my daughter, you can be sure my lawsuit won’t just be against the Sheriff, but also any school administrators present who say nothing, any school administrators who knew about this beforehand and said/did nothing, any officer there who participated and said nothing, and the local PA, who knew about this and said nothing.

    1. SHG Post author

      What part of this suggested to you that there was any possibility that anything bad might happen to the sheriff?

      1. Patrick Maupin

        It will be interesting infuriating to see the logic used to work around Safford v Redding and preserve QI.

  6. rsf

    Not to take away from or ignore what the police did, but I’m somewhat troubled by Walter’s statements, for a reason other than expressed in this article. Without the context of his conversation prior to stating, “Under no circumstances did we approve touching any students,” it almost seems like he may have given the permission he denies giving. Were the two quotes in this piece from the same interview or were they made at different times? I also wouldn’t be surprised if the school had, in the past, let these searches happen on a smaller scale without “permission.” I hope someone looks into the school’s role in this. It’s bad enough that they may have just let this happen. It’s worse if they agreed or have a history of permitting similar conduct.

    1. Billy Bob

      This is outrageous, and unacceptable, anywhere in the U.S. of A.
      What else can we say?

  7. Charles

    “We did not give permission but they didn’t as for permission, he just said, the sheriff, that he was going to do it after spring break,” said Walters.

    So this was so important that it could wait for over a week? It was so important that the sheriff didn’t ask for counsel about whether it even was legal? And the school did nothing when it had a week to consult with its own counsel? And Kevin Underhill’s post noted that the sheriff failed to confirm that the 13 people on his “list” even were in attendance that day.

    Granted, this is Worth County, population 20,000. Not likely that the school board has a staff attorney or counsel on retainer. But you’re talking about searching 4.5% of the population of the entire county. If the NYPD wanted to search 4.5% of the population of New York, they…never mind.

  8. sep332

    Any idea how many deputies were involved? The case seems to be against every single deputy in the county.

  9. Tom Curtin

    When I was an officer in the US Army the MPs, on occasion, used to search EVERY car that entered the base. When I inquired about the legality of this practice I was told that as long as they search every vehicle it is legal.

    They did not search random vehicles without probable cause.

    After 9-11-2001, the Security Force at Fort Belvoir conducts random searches of vehicles entering the base as well as check the ID of all entrants. It is against the law to bring drugs/contraband onto the base and the searches are preventive. I’m not sure if one could prosecute without probable cause.

    Because the school has a NO DRUGS policy and EVERYONE was searched, this practice might be deemed legal, except by an “ambulance chaser.”

    1. Terence

      Posted at the entrance to every federal installation is a sign that states entry onto the installation implies consent to search and seizure at any time under any circumstances. So, if you don’t want to be searched at any time without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, don’t enter. I’ve seen the notice at other facilities as well, such as courthouses, prisons and jails. You will see the same in the federal cyber world as well. The notice banner whenever entering a federal information system. Entering and using this federal IS implies consent ro search and seizure of the device used, public, personal or government device, its components and the information stored on the device, including removable PDA.

      1. SHG Post author

        Much as I appreciate your effort in explaining, this is a law blog, for lawyers and judges, so I try make this place relatively inhospitable to those who can’t contribute anything remotely informative or, as with Tom Curtin, totally batshit crazy.

        1. Hugo S. Cunningham

          @SHG– As a veteran of search regimes on military bases, I think you are being a bit harsh on Terence. But truancy laws provide a key difference between military bases and public schools: the students are required to attend school, and hence cannot be presumed to consent to anything.

          1. SHG Post author

            Hugo, this is a law blog, not a blog where people who have absolutely no clue what they’re talking about connect dots with imaginary lines that have no nexus in this or any other universe. Neither the law nor rationale that applies to military bases has anything whatsoever to schools. I was being unduly kind to Terence but not mentioning the efficacy of his having progeny.

  10. andrews

    Worth County, population 20,000

    Someone else did the math, 900 students is 4.5% of the population of the county. Any significant damage award per student is going to be felt in the households across the county. Even a thousand bucks per student works out to $22.22 per person in the county, and I cannot imagine the county commissioners being happy to add that to their levy some fall.

    Legal fees are extra. Assuming that the defendants resist the class action designation. Worst case for them: they win, and they suddenly get to defend a significant fraction of 900 separate suits. The county commission is going to be tickled to pay for 900 defenses. Less bad for them, they lose on the class designation, and they only have to defend so many suits as one plus the students who opt out of the class. It is still not going to be a fun fall to be on the county commission in Worth.

    It appears that there are some 20+ deputies in Worth [per randomly googled website]. The article says that the sheriff had them all called in for the search. Imagine the fun if each wants a separate defense. One atty per each, and probably they are going to be funded by the county.

    At the same time, it is said that people often get the government they deserve. Sheriff Hobby was elected in 2012, and presumably retained in 2016. Maybe the other choice was worse. At least the timing is good: Hobby is not up for reelection until 2020.

    1. SHG Post author

      They will either back Hobby or suffer him. Either way, its too late to bemoan the post hoc costs.

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