Shaw University files federal complaint over Spartanburg County traffic stop and search

Disclaimer: This article has been updated to include the agencies and divisions that participated in Operation Rolling Thunder 2022

Representatives of Shaw University spoke at a press conference Monday morning where they discussed a federal complaint filed with the Department of Justice (DOJ) over the Oct. 5 traffic stop in Spartanburg County.

Officials for the Raleigh historically Black university decried the search of Shaw personnel and the "ongoing necessity" of the fight for civil rights.

Paulette Dillard, Shaw President, along with Student Body President Mariah Williams and Attorney Daniel T. Blue III of Blue LLP in Raleigh, North Carolina spoke Monday about the search, which stemmed from a traffic stop for improper lane change.

The 18 Shaw students and two staff advisors were traveling along I-85 from Raleigh to Atlanta to attend the Center for Financial Advancement Conference when the stop occurred in Spartanburg County, although Cherokee County officers Sgt. Cody Painter and Sgt. Terrell Allen performed the stop.

While the stop was part of Operation Rolling Thunder, a multi-agency week-long effort to remove drugs and other forms of illegal contraband off South Carolina's highways, nothing was yielded from the search. The bus driver was given a citation for improper lane change.

"We need to ask the question why the officer on board the bus immediately asked the students if they were transporting some type of illegal or illicit content within their bags?" Dillard said. "This situation is a stark reminder that the fight for civil rights is still an ongoing necessity."

Blue III addressed the three main complaints in the letter, which requests an investigation into "Title VI and Civil Rights Violations" committed by the Spartanburg and Cherokee County Sheriff's Offices.

Following the release of the DOJ letter, Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Lt. Kevin Bobo said neither Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright nor Cherokee County Sheriff Steve Mueller have any additional comment.

Wright previously dismissed Dillard's comments about his agency as "slanderous and libelous."

The three main complaints are as follows:

Search and Seizure Under the Pretext of an Alleged Lane Violation

The DOJ letter references several court cases that serve as precedent, including Terry v. Ohio (1968), which says that a reasonable standard for a traffic stop is that it must be both legitimate at its inception and the officer's actions during the seizure must be "reasonably related" to the basis of the traffic stop.

The letter also claims that the search of the bus is unlawful if it extends the stop beyond it's original purpose, according to Rodriguez v. United States (2015).

Blue III added that there is no objective evidence of a lane violation right now, and was discouraged with how quickly the stop turned into a search for contraband.

"The real issue is why and how a minor traffic violation immediately turned into a drug search," Dillard said. "It begs the question whether every vehicle that is stopped for a lane violation is also searched by dogs for drugs. And, if not, what is the probable cause that makes that determination? Who gets searched and why?"

Violation of the Passengers' Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

The complaint references rights enumerated in the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects against "unreasonable searches and seizures."

While the bus driver gave officers consent to search the bus, body camera footage does not show the passengers being asked for consent by the officers. The letter states the officers did not make any attempt to identify or locate the owners of the searched bags.

The letter also notes a traveler's personal luggage is a protected "effect" under the Fourth Amendment, and that passengers had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" for their luggage on the charter bus.

"It is easy to understand how students who did nothing wrong can be negatively impacted forever by such an encounter," Williams said. "Situations like this one can change how we see ourselves, how we see each other, and how we see the world. These situations have the ability to erode public trust in established institutions that are supposed to protect and serve everyone equally."

TAKEN:How police departments make millions by seizing property

Operation Rolling Thunder

The letter also critiques Operation Rolling Thunder more broadly beyond this one specific stop. Blue III criticized the Sheriff's Office habit of seizing currency. This year, the Sheriff's Office seized just shy of $1 million.

Dillard also claimed that Spartanburg County in particular "has been called out previously for inequitable and discriminatory patterns of practice for disproportionate excessive searches and seizures of Black people without probable cause."

The chartered bus had no markings identifying it as carrying Shaw University personnel.

Wright said that the bus windows were tinted, making it further impossible to see who was inside. The letter acknowledges that the passengers' windows were tinted, but says the driver's window was not.

"I wish racism would die the ugly, cruel death it deserves," Wright said. "If anything we're ever doing is racist, I want to know it, I want to fix it, and I want to never let it happen again."

While Spartanburg Sheriff Chuck Wright has claimed that this stop and others part of Operation Rolling Thunder are race-neutral, the DOJ letter says the 2022 racial data proves otherwise.

Of the 900 total traffic cases in Operation Rolling Thunder, 308 black drivers (38.4%) were stopped, in comparison to 315 (39.2%) white drivers and 125 (15.6%) Hispanic, demonstrating a pattern of black and Hispanic drivers pulled over at a higher rate.

Black people make up 20.9% of Spartanburg County, compared to white people at 73.7% and Hispanic/Latino at 7.9%.

Blue III said such stops can be "traumatizing" and in the letter addresses the racial data, which he says shows black drivers as "disproportionately targeted."

“There is real harm done when individual rights are overlooked, ignored or denied – and when it becomes commonplace to violate the civil liberties of innocent Americans traveling on an Interstate highway," Dillard said. "The harmful effects of eroding individual rights under the pretext of law and order are real – and they are rampant all over the country.”

Here are the law enforcement agencies and divisions that participated in Operation Rolling Thunder 2022:

  • Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office Traffic Enforcement, Narcotics Division, Gang Unit, K9 Team, Forensic Chemistry Lab and Evidence.

  • Spartanburg County 911 Center, Spartanburg County Detention Facility and Spartanburg Emergency Management.

  • Department of Homeland Security, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, Duncan Police Department, Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, Florence County Sheriff’s Office, South Carolina Highway Patrol, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, South Carolina State Transport Police, Welford Police Department, Gaffney Police Department and 13 total K9 units.

This article originally appeared on Herald-Journal: Shaw files federal complaint over Spartanburg County stop and search