Police Abuse

$3 Million Settlement Awarded to Students Subjected to Illegal, Invasive Mass Pat Down at Georgia High School

The Sheriff who ordered the search is being charged with sexual battery.


The Georgia Sheriff's department that patted down an entire high school in a futile search for drugs has agreed to pay $3 million to settle a class action lawsuit.

The Worth County Sheriff's Office agreed to a settlement reached yesterday with nine of the roughly 900 students at Worth High School in Sylvester, more than 150 miles south of Atlanta. The students accused sheriff's deputies of groping their genitals and feeling inside their bras.

"We hope this settlement sends a message to law enforcement beyond just south Georgia — or beyond Georgia — that this abuse of power is just not tolerated," said Mark Begnaud, the Atlanta attorney who represented the students.

The April search, which Reason covered here, was done without any probable cause and over the objections of school staff. In response to the search, nine students filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that their Fourth and 14th Amendment rights had been violated.

"We did not give permission but they didn't as for permission," Lawrence Walters, the school's superintendent, told local NBC affiliate WALB. "I've never been involved with anything like that ever in the past 21 years and I don't condone it."

Wednesday's settlement, which still needs to be approved by a U.S. District judge, would put an end to that lawsuit. The legal troubles for Jeff Hobby, the Sheriff who ordered the search, are just beginning.

In October, Hobby was indicted on several charges related to the search, including sexual battery, false imprisonment, and violating his oath of office. On Monday, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order removing Hobby from office.

That both Hobby and the Sheriff' Office he ran are suffering real consequences for their invasive and unjustified search is a rare silver-lining to the otherwise appalling story.

As Reason's Robby Soave noted back in April, "Teenagers are compelled to attend school until they reach a certain age. They do not lose their constitutional rights when they step inside one, however."

Wednesday's settlement vindicates the idea that students do indeed have rights.