Gov. Deal suspends indicted sheriff behind controversial school search

Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday suspended a south Georgia sheriff who made national headlines earlier this year when he ordered invasive body searches of hundreds of high school students in a bizarre drug search gone awry.

Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby was temporarily removed from office pending the outcome of the criminal case against him related to the searches, during which some students said they felt sexually violated by his deputies.

Hobby was indicted Oct. 3 by a Worth grand jury that charged him with sexual battery, false imprisonment and violation of his oath of office. Two of Hobby’s deputies were also indicted in the case and all three were immediately suspended by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST).

Hobby, however, was able to continue serving the administrative functions of his office until Monday when Deal issued his executive order suspending him indefinitely until the case is resolved. Deal made his decision after a three-member review commission he appointed on Halloween reviewed the case and delivered a report to him Nov. 9.

A phone call to Hobby’s attorney Monday was not returned before deadline. His attorney, Norman Crowe Jr., has previously said Hobby denies the charges and expects to be cleared when the case goes to trial. If he is cleared in the case, Hobby would be able to return to office. If he is convicted, he would be permanently removed and a replacement would be sought.

Monday’s suspension is the latest fallout from the April 14 search that saw the entire Worth County High School locked down for four hours while deputies subjected some 900 students to drug searches, including instances where female students said deputies touched their breasts and private parts.

The case has drawn unwanted national attention to the small community east of Albany. Last month, the case took another turn when a drug arrest of the sheriff's son a week after the indictment renewed speculation that Hobby's decision to search the school was somehow linked to his son's troubles. Hobby said he sent his deputies into the school on the belief that drugs were present, but his search that day found nothing.

The sheriff’s son, Zachary Lewis Hobby, had been a student at Worth County High School part of last year, but he wasn’t at the school at the time of the April search.

Sheriff Hobby has said little publicly about the search that drew widespread community criticism and has led to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in June.

Just days after the search, the sheriff defended his actions and told Albany television station WALB-TV he was searching for drugs because he suspected they were present. A search by the Sylvester Police Department just weeks earlier failed to turn up drugs, but the sheriff said it wasn’t thorough enough.

Hobby initially entered the school with a target list of 13 students, but the search quickly evolved into a school-wide lock-down.

District Attorney Paul Bowden, whose circuit includes Worth County, sent a letter to Deal after the indictment outlining the case. It said Hobby failed to halt the intrusive body searches of hundreds of high schools students even after one deputy expressed concerns about the search methods, according to Bowden’s letter.

Hobby admitted to investigators that one of his female deputies expressed concern about another deputy’s search methods, but the sheriff left it to her to address with her colleague, the letter said. The sheriff told investigators he witnessed the same deputy conducting a search in a manner that he claims he did not direct, but the sheriff did nothing to stop it.

The sheriff “by his own admission failed to take any action to address this issue,” according to the letter.

The suspension Monday is more severe than other recent suspensions the governor has issued to sheriffs who ran afoul with the law.

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. Those transgressions were seen as less severe because they did not include felony indictments.