Editorial: Aiken County Sheriff’s Office should review practice of stopping, searching commercial buses | Editorials and Opinions
It sounds like a scene out of a movie: It’s late at night, and a bus filled with passengers is traveling down a remote stretch of interstate.
Then a police car comes up from behind, flashes its lights, and the officer pulls the bus over. Before long, backup units and a drug-sniffing K-9 are on the scene. Passengers wonder what is going on.
What could go wrong?
There’s no telling where Hollywood might go after that scene. But in real life, right here in Aiken County, passengers have been subjected to an illegal search.
In an investigative piece by the Aiken Standard, the above scenario played out multiple times in recent years. The Aiken County Sheriff’s Office conducted a dozen searches of commercial buses that yielded drug seizures, court records show. One deputy also testified to stopping and searching roughly 30 commercial buses because of minor traffic violations.
Even though drugs were found in a 2018 case – 27 pounds of marijuana and 12,000 ecstasy pills – a circuit judge threw out the case because deputies lacked probable cause.
The 2018 search that was ruled unconstitutional is troubling on several levels. Police in Liberty County, Georgia, made national headlines recently after stopping a bus carrying the Delaware State University women’s lacrosse team on Interstate 95. The deputies searched the bags but nothing illegal was found.
We get it; illegal drugs are a problem, and a popular way to transport them is by bus. As the sheriff’s office public information officer pointed out, there is no screening of bus passengers before they board. It would be quite easy to carry drugs and hope you don’t get stopped. There’s roughly 30 miles of Interstate 20 in Aiken County, not to mention hundreds of secondary roads.
But these “fishing” expeditions – deputies casting a net in hopes of reeling in some drug smugglers – need to stop. Not only do they violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, deputies in one case questioned a passenger without reading him his rights.
When a passenger on one of the stops cried foul, saying the action was “illegal search and seizure,” an Aiken County deputy responded with, “You’re in Aiken County now,” among other remarks.
Our reporting shows a dozen incident reports from the sheriff’s office involving drug seizures on buses that occurred between 2014 and 2021. An exact total on the number of buses that were stopped isn’t possible because incident reports are only filed when there is a drug seizure or arrest.
There’s no incentive for reporting a problem when drugs aren’t found, said Allen Chaney, director of legal advocacy at ACLU of South Carolina.
“They might file a complaint with the local police department, but it gets filed in the trash can,” Chaney said.
We’d like to know Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt’s thoughts on these searches, but he refused multiple interview requests. The department’s spokesman, Capt. Eric Abdullah, said that the deputies involved in the 2018 case that was thrown out were not disciplined. No internal investigations or disciplinary actions are expected, he said.
Abdullah did say that the sheriff’s office will put the lessons learned from the 2018 case into training.
It’s unclear if race played a factor in the Aiken County stops, but reports show that passengers charged in the incidents were Black and the deputies were predominantly white. In the Liberty County case, the deputies were all white and Delaware State is a historically Black university. The sheriff in Liberty County, who is Black, has promised a formal review of the case.
The Aiken County Sheriff’s Office should also take a long, hard look at its practices on these bus stops. Aiken County citizens – and all who pass through our county – deserve better.