Georgia sheriff faces sexual battery charge after drug search of 900 students at high school

Associated Press

A Georgia sheriff who was sued by students after a drug search at a high school earlier this year now stands charged with crimes including sexual battery.

A grand jury on Tuesday indicted Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby in connection with a search at Worth County High School in Sylvester, about 170 miles south of Atlanta. Hobby faces two counts of false imprisonment, one count of sexual battery and a charge of violating his oath of office.

He said he is innocent of the charges.

"The sheriff's position is he's not guilty and has committed no crime," Hobby's attorney, Norman Crowe Jr. said in a phone interview.

Deputies Tyler Turner and Deidra Whiddon were also indicted in connection with the April 14 search. Turner faces one count of sexual battery and one count of violation of his oath of office. Whiddon faces one count of violation of her oath of office. It was not immediately clear whether they had lawyers who could comment on the charges.

A phone message left at the sheriff's office seeking comment was not immediately returned Thursday.

Hobby violated his oath of office by ordering his deputies to search students at the high school "without probable cause or any other legal basis and without due process" in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Georgia Constitution, the indictment says.

The two deputies violated their oaths by performing invasive body searches, the indictment says. Tifton Judicial Circuit District Attorney Paul Bowden had presented 36 possible counts to the grand jury. Jurors ultimately passed on indicting three other deputies.

In June, the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of nine students against Hobby, Turner, Whiddon and other deputies. The lawsuit said the searches that were conducted were invasive and violated the constitutional rights of hundreds of students.

According to the lawsuit, Hobby arrived at the school with a "target list" of 13 students that he suspected of having drugs. Only three of the listed students were at school that day, and Hobby had them brought to administrative offices and searched. The lawsuit says Hobby then put the entire school on lockdown; students were confined to classrooms, hallways and the gym. Their cellphones were confiscated so they couldn't call their parents.

Approximately 900 students were searched, but no illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia were found. Sheriff's deputies conducted intrusive body searches, touching students' private parts and lifting their clothing in view of others, the lawsuit says.

Lawyers representing the sheriff and deputies in the civil case argue say their clients are entitled to official immunity and have asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

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