Citing what he termed “a constitutionally dubious stop and search,” Delaware State University President Tony Allen said Friday the school will file a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division.
It will be aimed at “police conduct” by the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office.
“From our standpoint, the evidence is clear and compelling,” Allen said in his first public remarks on the DSU women’s lacrosse team’s bus incident since it occurred more than three weeks ago.
The stop and search took place April 20 at 10:30 a.m. on a busy, wind-swept stretch of northbound Interstate 95 southwest of Savannah, Georgia. The Hornets were returning home after playing their final game of the season at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, on April 19.
“We believe both the stop and the search are a violation of rights,” Allen said.
Under Georgia law, an officer who legally stops a car “can shift into a criminal investigation so long as the officer can articulate reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is occurring,” according to a 2014 opinion published by the Georgia Supreme Court.
However, without this reasonable suspicion, “the extension of an otherwise completed traffic stop in order to conduct a free-air search of a vehicle using a drug dog violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Liberty County Sheriff’s Office deputies told bus driver Tim Jones he had illegally traveled in the far left lane, according to the body-camera vide, where buses were prohibited, though Jones responded by saying road signs only said trucks couldn’t travel there.
During their discussion, a K-9 unit arrived and a narcotics-sniffing dog reportedly detected a scent. Deputies then began a search of players’ luggage stored in the vehicle’s cargo bay.
As deputies were searching, the deputy who initially stopped the bus went onboard and asked team members to confess, saying “If there is something in there that’s questionable, please tell me now, because if we find it, guess what? We’re not gonna be able to help you.”
The deputy then exited the bus and asked the other deputies which bag alerted the K-9. Another deputy told him it’s the bag he’s searching and then pulls out a prescription bottle of Vyvanse – a drug to used to treat ADHD and binge-eating disorder.
After putting the medication back and zipping up the bag, deputies pulled additional bags from the bus’s cargo bay and began searching those.
Delaware State coach Pamella Jenkins described the situation as “very traumatizing” and added: “The infuriating thing was the assumption of guilt on their behalf.”
Allen, on Friday, said “implicit racial bias” was clearly evident.
“Some of the language they use relative to searching for drugs and drug paraphernalia suggested that there was some implicit bias in their inquiry,” Allen said.
A DSU Freedom of Information Act request for body camera video of Liberty County deputies beyond what was released earlier this week has gone unanswered despite a May 12 deadline, Allen said.
The incident didn’t come to light publicly until a May 4 story by Sydney Anderson, a sophomore lacrosse player who was on the bus, in DSU’s student publication The Hornet Newspaper and its website thehornetonline.com. Teammate Bri Johanson said Anderson started gathering information for the story “that day,” referring to April 20.
“Almost all of us were posting it as it happened, whether it was on Instagram, Snapchat,” Johanson said. “So we took pictures of officers. The majority of us put it on our Instagrams. … People were asking us if we were OK, we were on the phone with our parents. Everyone was basically saying ‘Hey, this needs to be brought to light.’ I’m kinda surprised it didn’t really get passed around beforehand because we were posting about it.”
Johanson said, “We were really banking on Sydney, honestly, to get it out there.”
Delaware NAACP president Richard Smith said that the university’s delay in reporting the incident allows police to continue the questionable behavior.
“The NAACP is concerned that this incident took place on April 20, 2022, but it was not made public until it was reported in the student newspaper last week,” read a Wednesday statement by the Delaware State NAACP Conference of Branches. “Subsequently the university made a statement on May 9, 2022.
“The NAACP subscribes to the theorem that ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ In that regard, the responsibility to protect students should not be abdicated to the students themselves.”
Alluding to questions about DSU’s delayed response, Allen said “I chose to ensure that our findings were as unassailable as possible.” He also said he was “pleased with the attention it has received” and how players and Jenkins have “presented their experiences thoughtfully and truthful[ly] to media outlets around the country.”
The Delaware General Assembly on Thursday night passed a resolution that expressed support for the DSU team.
It also condemned the actions of the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office and urged Georgia’s governor and legislature “to hold those responsible accountable, including providing training and instituting a policy against profiling based on race, ethnicity, religion, or gender.”