RALEIGH, NC — A historically black North Carolina university announced Monday that it filed a complaint with the Justice Department seeking a review of a search of a bus carrying students during a traffic stop in South Carolina last month.
Shaw University President Paulette Dillard has accused law enforcement officials in Spartanburg County of racially profiling the 18 students who traveled on a contract bus from Raleigh, North Carolina, to an Oct. 5 conference in Atlanta.
Two South Carolina sheriffs have denied that racial profiles played a role in the delay, saying the bus was stopped for swerving.
But at a news conference on Monday, Dillard said the problem is how the alleged minor violation became a drug search, whether each stop prompts such a search and if not, what triggers a search.
“The harmful effects of eroding individual rights under the guise of law and order are real — and they are widespread across the country,” she said. “To be clear… racism is about power and systems; and just because someone isn’t kneeling on their neck doesn’t mean harm isn’t being done.”
At a news conference last month, Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright called the allegations of racial profiling “plain false.” Officials stopped the unmarked bus with tinted windows for swerving, he said. The stop was part of “Operation Rolling Thunder,” a week-long anti-drug campaign that has seen congressmen and officials with agencies from across the state patrol the county’s highways.
“If anything we ever do is racist, I want to know, I want to fix it, and I want it never to happen again,” Wright said. “But this case has absolutely nothing to do with racism.”
A leashed dog “walked through the luggage” and found nothing illegal, Wright said. Police bodycam footage shows officers searching multiple pockets in the underbelly of the bus. The driver received a warning.
The university’s complaint states that a lane violation does not constitute sufficient justification for a drug search and that the students’ personal rights have been violated because the driver agreed to a luggage compartment search, but the passengers did not agree to a search of their individual luggage. It is also claimed that Operation Rolling Thunder disproportionately targeted black drivers.
Cherokee County Sheriff Steve Mueller said officers “did nothing wrong” and could not have known the races of the people on the bus when they stopped it.
Wright and Mueller declined to comment on the complaint Monday.
Democratic members of the North Carolina congressional delegation last month asked the Justice Department to investigate the incident.
The traffic stop comes after an April incident in Georgia in which sheriff’s deputies stopped the Delaware State University lacrosse team bus and searched it for drugs. HBCU President Tony Allen said he was “outraged” and accused police officers of intimidation and humiliation.
Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman, who is black, said in May that deputies found drugs on another bus that same morning. The team’s chartered bus was stopped for traveling in the left lane, a violation of Georgia law, according to Bowman, who said deputies searched the bus after a drug-sensing dog was “warned” next to it. No one was arrested or charged and the driver received a warning.
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