Body search of students leads to sexual battery charge for Ga. sheriff

In addition to criminal charges, Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby faces possible suspension from office and loss of his police certification in his role overseeing body searches of hundreds of high school students in April. (Credit: WALB)

In addition to criminal charges, Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby faces possible suspension from office and loss of his police certification in his role overseeing body searches of hundreds of high school students in April. (Credit: WALB)

A south Georgia grand jury indicted Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby on Tuesday for sexual battery, false imprisonment and violation of oath of office after he ordered a school-wide search of hundreds of high school students. Deputies allegedly touched girls’ vaginas and breasts and groped boys in their groin area during the search at the Worth County High School April 14.

Two of Hobby’s deputies were also indicted Tuesday in connection with the case.

The controversial search drew national attention because of its scope and how deputies conducted it under the guise of a drug search that produced no drugs or arrests. Deputies locked down the school, located 30 miles east of Albany, for more than four hours and searched nearly 800 students.

The indictment from the Worth County grand jury accuses Hobby of one count of violating his oath of office and two counts of false imprisonment — all felony charges. He was also indicted on one count of sexual battery, a misdemeanor.

Deputy Tyler Turner was indicted on one felony count of violation of his oath of office and one misdemeanor count of sexual battery. Deputy Deidra Whiddon was indicted for one felony count of violation of her oath of office.

In all, District Attorney Paul Bowden sought charges against the sheriff and five of his deputies. He presented a 36-count indictment for grand jurors to consider and they returned charges on six counts. In 24 of the potential charges, grand jurors cleared the officers with a no bill and in six instances they tabled the charges. Bowden said he has no plans at this time to bring the no billed or tabled charges back before another grand jury for consideration.

He said he spent two full days presenting evidence to grand jurors from the case, which was investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

“Evidence was exhaustively presented to the grand jury,” he said.

In addition to the criminal case, the sheriff is facing a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in June by nine students who were subjected to the invasive searchesOne of the parents of the students said Wednesday she was glad the sheriff now also faces accountability in criminal court. The deputy who allegedly touched her daughter's vagina through her jean pockets and lifted up her bra and touched her breasts was mentioned in the indictment, but grand jurors did not implicate her.

“I’m disappointed that the deputy that violated my daughter was not indicted,” said Amaryllis Coleman. “I don’t know how I’m going to tell this to my daughter.”

Officers did not testify

Under Georgia law, a police officer or sheriff accused of a crime related to their official duties can appear before a grand jury to give a statement. Private citizens facing criminal charges do not get this privilege. But the sheriff and his deputies chose not to invoke that privilege. All stayed out of the grand jury room. That’s at least in part due to a new law that curbed some of the unique privileges officers previously had to sway grand jurors.

Under a new law that took effect last year, officers would have been subject to cross examination and wouldn’t have been able to rebut statements made by prosecutors during that cross-examination.

“It’s not a balanced proceeding,” said Norman Crowe Jr., the sheriff’s attorney.

Crowe said the sheriff jurors get to hear his side of the story when case moves to its trial phase. He said the sheriff was at the school the day of the search, but did not personally search students.

“The sheriff’s position is that he’s not guilty,” Crowe said. “He’s committed no crime.”

Prosecutions of law enforcement officers are rare in Georgia, given that prosecutors often depend on police and sheriff’s deputies to help them make cases.

Still, Bowden said he never felt political pressure from the sheriff or his supporters not to pursue the case.

“It’s not a pleasant circumstance for them or for us,” he said.

Charges to be forwarded to governor

Bowden said he is preparing to send the indictment and a summary of the charges against Hobby to Gov. Nathan Deal, who has authority to suspend the sheriff. In June, Deal suspended DeKalb County Sheriff Jeffrey Mann for 40 days after he was accused of exposing himself in Piedmont Park. Deal suspended Walton County Sheriff Joe Chapman last month after allegations surfaced that he failed to report an arrest at a Florida bar last year.

In addition to any action by Deal, state law requires a police officer or sheriff charged with a felony to temporarily lose their police certification until the case is resolved. The Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) received the indictment Wednesday afternoon and hours later had already moved under an emergency action to suspend the sheriff’s law enforcement certification. Both Turner and Whiddon will also have their law enforcement licenses suspended until the case is resolved. Vance said POST would also review the other three deputies mentioned in the presented indictment who were not charged for possible action related to their police certification.

Under POST guidelines, a sheriff is allowed to continue his administrative duties even if his police certification has been suspended. During his suspension, Hobby will be stripped of all his law enforcement and arrest powers, Vance said.

“Three felonies and a misdemeanor — that’s pretty serious,” Vance said. “He does have due process rights. This is something that will have to be decided in the courts. Until then, his license will be suspended.”