Dozens of people were arrested on Sunday, December 30, 2018, at a party in Cartersville.
Photo: WSB-TV video screen shot
Photo: WSB-TV video screen shot

‘Cartersville 70’ suspects were strip-searched at jail, lawsuit says

It started out as a Bartow County house party just before New Year’s Eve in 2017. But before the night was over, 70 people, including five juveniles, were rounded up and arrested for allegedly possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. 

Twelve days later, the charges were dropped. But by then, news of the arrests had made national headlines and the “Cartersville 70” went viral on social media. Not only was the work of law enforcement questioned, but also the suspected racial bias: Of the 65 adults arrested, 50 were black. But the story of the Cartersville 70 doesn’t end there. 

Seven of those arrested on drug charges filed a federal lawsuit Monday claiming their constitutional rights were violated when officers, who said they smelled marijuana, entered the Cain Drive home and detained everyone attending a birthday party. And those arrested were humiliated, the lawsuit states, when they were forced to undergo strip searches at the jail. 

“Visitors, some as young as 17 years old, were ordered to remove all of their clothing in front of two or more deputies, bend over at the waist, spread their buttocks with their hands, and cough multiple times,” the lawsuit states. “Male visitors were further ordered to lift their genitals. Once the search was over, some visitors were allowed to wear the clothes they were arrested in, while others were given jail uniforms.” 

Police found guns and drugs inside a Bartow County home during a party on New Year’s Eve. (Photo: Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The 70 suspects were charged with possession of less than an ounce of marijuana — charges that Bartow District Attorney Rosemary Greene dropped on Jan. 12, 2018, because of a lack of evidence. 

The DA met with NAACP leaders prior to her decision. 

“It’s simply not possible for 70 people to possess the same alleged small amount of marijuana,” attorney Gerald Griggs, speaking on behalf of the Georgia NAACP, said following the arrests. 

But that didn’t change that the arrests happened. Several of those arrested retained attorneys, including the seven who filed the class-action suit. 

“These people’s lives were turned completely upside down,” Gerald Weber, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said Monday. “It was a complete nightmare for them.” 

The Cartersville Police Department’s policies included “warrant-less entries” into homes based only on the smell of marijuana, the lawsuit states. Plus, officers detained everyone in the location while conducting a criminal investigation. Both of those policies are illegal, Weber said. There were no individual interviews conducted in the home. 

RELATED: 64 of 65 Bartow County drug charges dropped

ALSO: NAACP says most of the charges should be dropped

“Just ‘police 101 investigation techniques’ were not followed in this case,” Weber said. 

The seven plaintiffs, all in their early 20s, contend that the arrests and media attention caused them to lose jobs and affected their military careers, and they are seeking damages and a jury trial. The city of Cartersville and 31 other defendants, including various police officers and Bartow deputies, are named in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Rome. 

The attorney for the city of Cartersville, Sun Choy, declined to comment Monday afternoon when contacted by email, stating he was reviewing the allegations. 

After detaining the partygoers several hours inside the home, officers announced they had search warrants, the lawsuit states. The group was then ordered outside, where they were patted down and searched, but no drugs were found. 

“Despite the lack of any evidence tying any one visitor to a crime, an officer announced that everyone was going to jail,” the suit states. 

Many of the 70 had never before been arrested, Weber said. 

“This was their first interaction with the criminal justice system, and it was an interaction that never should have happened in the first place,” Weber said. 

At the Bartow jail, those arrested were forced into cramped cells, and staff members put up signs that read “The Party Crew” and laughed, according to the plaintiffs. Their mugshots were posted on the Bartow Sheriff’s Office website, violating Georgia law, the suit states. Also, their cells were cold and those with medical conditions were not given proper attention, the litigation alleges. 

“Imagine being arrested simply for attending a party,” said Southern Center for Human Rights staff attorney Ebony Brown. “Then, imagine being subjected to a dehumanizing strip-search in front of multiple people, and forced into a crowded, freezing cage for days on end, away from your loved ones, your children, and your source of income. It is anything but inconsequential.” 

In addition to three SCHR attorneys, the seven plaintiffs are represented by John and Ashleigh Merchant, Marietta attorneys.

A small amount of drugs and 3 guns were found inside the home

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.