Multimillion Dollar Settlement Reached by Worth County High School Students Subjected to Unconstitutional Mass Search

14th November, 2017

Atlanta, GA -- A proposed multimillion dollar class settlement has been reached in K.A., et al. v. Jeff Hobby, et al., a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging a suspicionless mass search of approximately 850 public high school students by Worth County Sheriff’s deputies on April 14, 2017. In this lawsuit, Plaintiffs alleged that Sheriff Jeff Hobby and his deputies violated the United States and Georgia Constitutions by conducting intrusive searches of the bodies of hundreds of students without probable cause. The total settlement fund will be $3 million, which is the limit of the defendants’ insurance policy. 

On the morning of Friday, April 14, 2017, Sheriff Hobby and his deputies arrived at Worth County High School.  They placed the school on lockdown for four hours, ordered students into the hallways, and required them to line up with their hands against the wall and their legs spread.  The deputies intrusively searched students’ clothing and body parts in view of their classmates.  Deputies inserted fingers inside of and pulled up girls’ bras, touching and partially exposing their bare breasts; they touched girls’ underwear and genital areas by placing hands inside their waistbands or reaching up their dresses; and they cupped or groped boys’ genitals.  

Throughout the mass search, which was ostensibly to discover drugs, students were prevented from contacting their parents. No illegal drugs or paraphernalia were discovered during the mass search, which was captured on high-resolution surveillance video.

“The students’ voices have been heard,” said Southern Center for Human Rights attorney Crystal Redd. “Their rights were violated on April 14, and they took the steps to ensure that these illegal searches would not go unnoticed.” 

The settlement is pending approval by the Federal District Court for a class of approximately 850 students subjected to the searches. Each class member will receive a monetary award of between $1,000 and $6,000, with those students subjected to more invasive searches receiving higher amounts. Once any outstanding claims are resolved and attorney fees of 15% of the fund are paid, half of any remaining funds will be paid into a fund for the benefit of Worth County High School students. Plaintiffs will now file a motion for preliminary approval of the settlement, asking the Court to allow the parties to notify all class members regarding its terms. Should the Court grant preliminary approval, every student will be sent a notice of the proposed settlement, as well as a response form containing a questionnaire.

The named plaintiffs are nine students who were subjected to the mass search. Plaintiffs are represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights and Horsley Begnaud, LLC.

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The plaintiffs’ complaint contains detailed accounts of nine students’ experiences with the mass search.

One Worth County High School student, plaintiff A.W., then age 15, was in her world history class when the Sheriff and his deputies arrived to perform their search. The deputy searching A.W. moved both her hands from A.W.’s knees up to her thighs, within one inch of her vaginal area. The deputy reached her hand over A.W.’s shoulder and into the front of A.W.’s dress, then placed her fingertips under the underwire of A.W.’s bra and touched her breasts. 

Another student, plaintiff J.E., then age 16, was in his agriculture class when the Sheriff and his deputies arrived. The deputy searching J.E. reached between his legs and squeezed his testicles twice, before touching his penis through his pants.  The deputy also touched J.E.’s buttocks though his pants and squeezed them twice.

“This settlement is a victory for the hundreds of Worth County students whose constitutional rights were violated,” said Mark Begnaud, an attorney with Atlanta-based civil rights law firm Horsley Begnaud.  “We hope that this multimillion dollar settlement will send the message to law enforcement officials everywhere that abuse of power will not be tolerated.”    

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On October 3, 2017, a Worth County grand jury indicted Sheriff Hobby and two deputies on charges stemming from their involvement in the mass search.  Hobby faces charges of false imprisonment and violation of oath of office, both felonies, and of sexual battery, a misdemeanor.  Deputies Tyler Turner and Deidra Whiddon are also facing charges; Turner for sexual battery and violation of oath of office and Whiddon for violation of oath of office.

On November 13, 2017, Governor Nathan Deal announced his decision to suspend the Sheriff, effective immediately.

Read a copy of the amended complaint here