A group of Georgia high school students have reached a $3 million settlement against the Worth County Sheriff's Office after a judge ruled that law enforcement violated their civil rights by conducting a massive drug search without probable cause.
A judge ordered former Worth County Sheriff Jeff Hobby and his deputies to pay the staggering settlement to the students.
In April, Hobbs and his deputies spent hours at Worth County High School searching more than 800 students for drugs — and their search turned up empty.
Attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Atlanta-based civil rights firm Horsley Begnaud filed a class-action lawsuit against the sheriff's department on behalf of the students.
According to the suit, deputies "touched and manipulated students' breasts and genitals" and "inserted fingers inside girls' bras." The suit also alleged that the searches revealed the students' body parts.
Mark Begnaud, who represented the students in the lawsuit, said Hobbs executed the search based on scant evidence and in clear violation of the students' constitutional rights.
"We hope this settlement sends a message to law enforcement beyond just south Georgia — or beyond Georgia — that this abuse of power is just not tolerated," Begnaud said. "Students don't shed their constitutional rights when they enter a school."
According to NBC-affiliate WALB, the settlement will now go to U.S. District Judge Leslie Abrams for approval.
Begnaud said each of the students could receive a $1 to $6,000, depending on the severity and invasiveness of their search. Additional funds will be allocated to cover legal expenses and the remaining money will be set aside in a fund to benefit the high school, Begnaud said.
Attorney Raleigh Rollins, who represented Hobbs and the Worth County deputies, said taxpayers will not be responsible for paying the settlement. Instead, he said the funds will come from the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, which essentially provides insurance coverage to the sheriff's department.
The Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) praised the judge's decision to award the maximum amount in damages to students.
"The students' voice have been heard," Chrystal Redd, a lawyer with the center, said in a statement. "Their rights were violated on April 14, and they took the steps to ensure that these illegal searches would not go unnoticed."