Atlanta Hawks forward Mike Scott and his brother were driving up I-85 when a Banks County deputy pulled up behind them and turned on his lights and siren.
The brothers were headed to Virginia on July 30, 2015, to attend a basketball camp Scott was hosting. But just minutes later, Mike and Antonn Scott were on the pavement, handcuffed and under arrest.
Deputies found 1.2 ounces of marijuana in a Tupperware container and 10.9 grams of ecstasy in a baggie in the back seat of their rented SUV. They also seized the $1,684 in cash Scott had on him.
But in a scathing ruling this week, a Banks County judge eviscerated the case against the Scotts. The judge determined they were targets of racial profiling, found their traffic stop unjustified and threw out all evidence seized in the case.
Superior Court Judge Currie Mingledorff also questioned the tactics used by a small Sheriff’s Office unit that stops thousands of motorists driving through Banks County on a 10-mile stretch of I-85. The unit employs no dash cams, body cams or speed detection devices that could help account for their work.
“In an era in which police conduct is so carefully scrutinized, the court finds it both surprising and concerning that there is no video evidence of the stop and subsequent activities,” Mingledorff wrote. A record that authenticates what happened, the judge said, “is indeed ‘the friend’ of lawful police conduct.”
Making the case even more extraordinary was a court motion filed by the man who was prosecuting the Scotts. Banks County District Attorney Brad Smith said “randomness or coincidence” could not explain the overwhelming numbers of minorities being stopped by Deputy Brent Register, who pulled over the Scotts’ SUV.
If the state were to prosecute the Scotts using the evidence seized in the case, it would be complicit in the violation of the Scotts’ constitutional rights, Smith wrote. It also would be complicit in the violation of the rights of “all of the law-abiding minority drivers” who have been stopped by Register.
“The integrity of the judicial system of Banks County is too valuable to compromise for the prosecution of defendants who were possessing drugs on I-85 for the few minutes they would have even been in Banks County,” Smith wrote.
In an interview, Smith said he agreed with Mingledorff’s ruling and said of the traffic stops,”It’s a shame.”
Scott’s lawyer, Billy Healan of Winder, agreed. “This is the kind of case that makes the public mistrust the police,” he said. “Hopefully, our investigation and the court’s order will end the illegal practices by the Banks County Sheriff’s Department.”
Neither Sheriff Carlton Speed nor Register returned phone calls seeking comment.
In a statement, Sheriff’s Office Lt. Carissa McFaddin said the office is reviewing the court records in the case. “Until we have concluded this review, we will refrain from discussing personnel matters,” she said. “We want nothing more than to serve the public with ethical and professional standards.”
McFaddin said Register has been placed on administrative leave pending review.
Scott, who was traded by the Hawks to the Phoenix Suns this past February, may have been one of the last people Banks County deputies wanted to pull over with an unjustified stop. With a $3.3 million contract, Scott had the wherewithal to mount an aggressive defense.
His legal team blanketed the Sheriff’s Office with Open Records Act requests and looked into Register’s past employment, finding he’d been forced to resign from two law enforcement agencies, according to court testimony. The attorneys then used those records to undercut Register’s account of what happened.
Healan accused the Banks County Sheriff’s Office of engaging in an improper forfeiture scheme in which deputies made up reasons to stop people and then unlawfully searched them and their cars.
“He’s not out there to enforce the traffic laws,” Healan said of Register. “He’s out there to shake people down for drugs and money.”
During a Feb. 24 hearing in the case, Register denied engaging in racial profiling.
“I’m mixed myself,” he said, referring to his race. “I would never stop somebody due to their race, whether they’re white, black, pink, green, purple, pink, whatever.”
Register, who joined the Banks County Sheriff’s Office in September 2012, said he was a member of a three-person “crime interdiction unit” patrolling I-85.
“We’re a felony unit,” he testified. “We conduct traffic stops for traffic violations looking for any kind of felonies that may arise out of a traffic stop.”
Asked whether he made traffic stops to make forfeitures that pad the department’s budget, Register answered, “Absolutely not.”
In fiscal year 2016, the Banks County Sheriff’s Office seized $148,320 in currency, according to records collected by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government. During the same year, the office spent $269,014 in forfeiture funds on training, travel, equipment upgrades and capital improvements, records show.
Register said he issues warnings at most of his stops. He said he stops motorists for following another car too closely, making an improper lane change and having missing headlights or tail lights.
In 2015 and 2016, Register made more than 1,400 traffic stops, yet he issued tickets in only eight of those stops, according to court records. He also made 47 arrests, and 44 were minorities, two were white and one was of unknown race.
“These numbers are truly shocking,” Judge Mingledorff wrote in his order.
At 9 a.m. on July 30, 2015. Register said he was patrolling I-85 when he saw the Scotts’ rented Chevy Suburban following a small white car too closely.
At mile marker 154, Register said, he turned on his lights and sirens, at which point the Suburban accelerated up to 98 miles an hour, the deputy said. (Register said he gauged the speed by looking at his own speedometer.)
Register said he chased the Suburban until it pulled over at mile marker 156. At that point, fellow deputy Kyle Walker arrived and they approached the SUV with guns drawn.
After the Scotts were handcuffed, Register said he asked whether there was anything illegal in the car. Mike Scott said there was “some weed” inside the SUV, Register said.
Antonn Scott, then a college student, testified he had not been following anyone too closely. He denied speeding up after Register flashed his lights and said he simply pulled over.
A court motion filed by the Scotts’ attorneys accused Register of giving a false account of what happened.
Register claimed the chase began at mile marker 154 and ended at mile marker 156, and dispatch call-in records show this transpired during a 12-second span, the motion said.
“Traveling two miles in 12 seconds would require a speed of 600 mph,” the motion said. “Mr. Scott was driving a Suburban, not a jet airplane.”
Moreover, records from the towing company showed it picked up the Suburban at mile marker 154, not 156, confirming Antonn Scott’s account, the motion said.
Antonn Scott’s account of what happened was more credible than Register’s, Mingledorff said in the ruling, finding no chase occurred and the stop was unjustified.
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