news 5 days ago

Proposed $3M settlement reached in school search lawsuit

The Associated Press — By KATE BRUMBACK - Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — A legal advocacy group announced Tuesday that it has reached a proposed $3 million settlement in a lawsuit against a suspended Georgia sheriff over a drug search at a high school that ultimately turned up no drugs.

The Southern Center for Human Rights in June filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby and 17 deputies. The proposed settlement, which still has to be approved by a judge, amounts to the limit of the defendants' insurance policy, the Southern Center said in a news release.

"The students' voices have been heard," Southern Center attorney Crystal Redd said in the release. "Their rights were violated on April 14, and they took the steps to ensure that these illegal searches would not go unnoticed."

A grand jury last month indicted Hobby and two deputies in connection with a search in April at Worth County High School in Sylvester, about 170 miles (274 kilometers) south of Atlanta. Hobby faces two counts of false imprisonment, one count of sexual battery and a charge of violating his oath of office.

Hobby's attorney in the criminal case, Norman Crowe Jr., has said that Hobby's position is that he did nothing criminal.

Lawyer Raleigh Rollins Jr., who represents Hobby and 12 of the deputies in the civil case, confirmed the proposed settlement and said the sheriff's office has a coverage agreement with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, which would pay the settlement amount. Rollins said by phone that he had no further comment.

Rick Strickland, who represents the other five deputies, said by email that he does not comment on pending cases.

Hobby and his deputies arrived at the school on April 14 and put the school on lockdown for four hours, ordering the students to line up in the hallways with their hands against the walls and their legs spread, the Southern Center said.

The deputies conducted intrusive searches of students' clothing and body parts in front of their classmates, feeling under their clothes and touching the breasts of female students and the genital areas of both male and female students, the Southern Center said. Students' cellphones were confiscated so they couldn't call their parents.

No illegal drugs or paraphernalia were found during the search.

If the proposed settlement for a class of about 850 students is approved by the court, each class member would receive between $1,000 and $6,000, with the higher amounts going to those subjected to more invasive searches, the Southern Center said. After any outstanding claims are resolved and attorney fees are paid, half of the remaining money will be put in a fund to benefit Worth County High School students.

The announcement of the proposed settlement comes a day after Gov. Nathan Deal suspended Hobby pending the final outcome of his case or the expiration of his term of office, whichever comes first. Deal's executive order said a review commission he had appointed found that the indictment adversely affected Hobby's "administration of the office of Sheriff of Worth County."

Deal on Tuesday appointed Bobby Sapp to fill in as sheriff during Hobby's suspension.

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