Civil Liberties

Georgia Cops Rummaged Through Student-Athletes' Luggage in a Fruitless Search for 'a Little Bit of Marijuana'

When did the K-9 arrive? And what was the probable cause for the search?


Police in Liberty County, Georgia, are scrambling to defend a traffic stop last month of the Delaware State University women's lacrosse team, which players and coaches say ended in a "humiliating" and unlawful search of their belongings. 

The team charter bus for Delaware State University, a historically black institution, was stopped on April 20 while traveling north through Georgia on I-95 after a game in Florida. In bodycam footage recorded by one of the Liberty County deputies, you can hear him tell the driver he pulled the bus over because it was illegally driving in the left lane. 

Rather than simply cite the bus driver and send the team on their way, however, the deputies searched the luggage of the players and coaches, which was stowed under the bus.

Based on reporting in other outlets and the bodycam footage made available by Liberty County, it's not clear what the pretext was for the search. The footage shows the first officer saying, "Positive on the truck? There's a bunch of things. Schoolgirls on the bus, it's probably some weed." A K-9 is then visible a few moments later. 

While the positive indication of a K-9 is probable cause for a search (regardless of the truly staggering false-positive rate such dogs produce), it is unclear whether the dog was brought to the scene after the bus was stopped, or if the bus was stopped by a K-9 unit. 

Further, the bodycam video shows the bus' luggage area opened, and it is unclear whether that was done before or after the dog's apparent positive indication.

These are all pertinent questions. The Supreme Court's majority opinion in Rodriguez v. United States (2015) held that "[a]bsent reasonable suspicion, police extension of a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff violates the Constitution's shield against unreasonable seizures." If the bus was pulled over for driving in the wrong lane, but the stop was extended in order to bring a dog in, that extra time has constitutional implications.

It also matters whether the luggage compartment was opened before the police dog supposedly alerted to it or in response to its alert. While police do not need permission, a warrant, or probable cause to walk a drug dog around a vehicle, they do need one of those three things to open a luggage compartment before the dog alerts. 

Footage shows an officer telling Tim Jones, the bus driver, that he was stopped for illegally driving in the left lane, but that same deputy can also be heard saying, "This is what we do, OK? Every day we get out here, we stop commercial vehicles, OK?" This audio exchange possibly undermines Liberty County's claim that the pretext for the stop was an actual traffic violation. 

The team also received another explanation for the search. As Pamella Jenkins, the team's coach, later recounted, when a player inquired as to why officers were searching players' luggage, she was told that previous charter buses on I-95 had been found engaging in human trafficking and narcotics smuggling, and thus the officers needed to be "diligent." But what indication did Liberty County deputies have that this bus was doing one of those things? 

The video of the incident captures one officer telling the players: "If there is anything in y'all's luggage, we're probably going to find it, OK? I'm not looking for a little bit of marijuana, but I'm pretty sure you guys' chaperones are probably going to be disappointed in you if we find any."

On Tuesday, Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman claimed that "no personal items on the bus or person(s) were searched"—a claim directly contradicted by bodycam video.

Jenkins further recounted that the officers retrieved a wrapped package at one point in the search, questioning the player whose name was on it. When the player told officers that the package was a gift from a family member and intended to be opened after the team got home, Jenkins claimed that the officer pointedly questioned the player: "You accepted something, and you don't know what it is?" The officer then opened the gift and found a book-shaped jewelry box.

Despite searching for minutes through the teams' belongings—including probing through players' underwear and menstrual products—the officers found nothing illegal. What, then, was the dog alerting to? Deputies then released the bus without giving the driver a citation for the illegal lane use that was the pretext for the stop. 

Following a USA Today article, the stop and search have become a national story, gaining the attention of public officials and university administrators. 

Delaware State University President Tony Allen released a statement in which he said, "It should not be lost on any of us how thin any day's line is between customary and extraordinary, between humdrum and exceptional, between safe and victimized. This is true for us all but particularly so for communities of color."

Delaware Sens. Chris Coons (D) and Tom Carper (D) and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D–Del.) all expressed outrage over the incident, especially its perceived racial motivations, writing in a joint statement that "[n]o one should be made to feel unsafe or humiliated by law enforcement or any entity who has sworn to protect and serve them. That's especially true for students who have sought out [historically black colleges or universities] like Delaware State University with a long history of empowering communities of color that have far too often faced discrimination and other barriers to opportunity."

While critics of the stop have argued that it, and the ensuing search, were clearly racially motivated, the larger issue for all Americans is the outrageous latitude the Supreme Court has given to police officers patrolling America's roads. As Damon Root noted last year, Whren v. United States (1996) "effectively erased" the Fourth Amendment rights of drivers who have "committed even the most minor of traffic infractions"—like misusing an interstate passing lane. 

While released bodycam footage leaves some key details of the stop ambiguous, this incident is a reminder that the Supreme Court has given police—and their magical dogs—the right to disregard the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans in transit.