Delaware State University to file federal civil rights complaint over drug search of lacrosse team’s luggage

A view of the Delaware State University's women's lacrosse team

Delaware State University Women's Lacrosse Coach Pamella Jenkins said the "traumatic" episode of the team's bus being stopped and searched by police in Georgia haunts her. (Courtesy of Delaware State University)

Delaware State University will file a federal civil rights complaint over a traffic stop in Georgia where police searched the women’s lacrosse team’s luggage for drugs, the university’s president said Friday.

The school is also calling on Georgia officials to force the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office to release body camera footage from all four deputies at the scene on Interstate 95 near Savannah on April 20.

The sheriff has publicly released footage from one officer’s body-worn camera, but the school wants all of them. That includes the camera worn by the handler of the drug-sniffing dog that was allegedly alerted to the odor of drugs at the cargo bay of the charter bus.

The officers were white, and almost all 30 passengers on the team bus were Black, as was the driver.

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Nothing illegal was found, and the coach Pamella Jenkins has suggested that racial bias played a role in ransacking the players’ luggage. Jenkins said they went through the women’s underwear during their search.

Deputies also unwrapped a gift one player had received from a relative in Georgia when they played a game at Kennesaw State University. It turned out to be a book safe, which is a book that has been hollowed out to create a hidden storage area inside.

During a virtual briefing Friday, Delaware State president Tony Allen said the complaint will be filed next week with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

“The basis of this complaint will be police misconduct related to the April 20th incident,’’ Allen said. “Liberty County Sheriff’s Department officers conducted a constitutionally dubious stop and search.”

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Allen said the arguments and evidence obtained by the school and its attorney will outline the improper acts.

The controversy over the stop and search has gained national news coverage in the aftermath of a story about it that was published Wednesday in the university’s newspaper, The Hornet.

Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman, who is Black, on Tuesday defended the search as legal and appropriate.

Bowman said the bus was stopped on April 20 on I-95 near Savannah for illegally being in the left lane. He said a drug-sniffing dog gave an alert at the cargo bay, giving deputies who were part of a commercial drug interdiction unit probable cause to search the bags.

Bowman said he doesn’t tolerate racial profiling, and that the students were not profiled during the stop and search.

Allen was asked if he thought the team was racially profiled.

“What we believe is that the search was conducted inappropriately and there was implicit racial bias in the search,’’ he said.

“Some folks have asked, do we believe that they were stopped based on race? I would just advise everybody who knows the term of art — racial profiling — that it’s both about the stop and the intent once the stop begins.”

“So even if they did not know who was on that bus at the time of the stop, there was certainly great certainty with who was on that bus once they boarded it.”

Allen stressed that Jenkins and her players and staff feel aggrieved by their treatment.

“We’re looking for justice for them,’’ Allen said. “And we’re also looking to create an avenue for them if they so choose to file their own suits on this matter. We believe the complaint will help in that regard.”

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