By Jennifer Henderson and Alaa Elassar, CNN
Delaware State University intends to file a formal complaint with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division regarding allegations the women’s lacrosse team was racially profiled during a traffic stop in Georgia.
President Tony Allen announced Friday the historically Black institution’s decision to file the complaint, after what he says was police misconduct by the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia.
Allen said the deputies “conducted a constitutionally dubious stop and search of a charter bus” carrying women’s lacrosse team members on April 20, 2022.
“We believe both the stop and the search are a violation of rights. The rights of every passenger on that bus, those of the driver,” Allen said. “Our first and most immediate concern was our students and coaches mental and physical well-being and remains paramount.”
The team’s bus was headed north on Interstate 95 in Liberty County following a game in Florida when it was stopped “under the pretext of a minor traffic violation,” Allen said in an earlier statement. Liberty County is on Georgia’s coast, south of Savannah.
Video taken by players shows “law enforcement members attempting to intimidate our student-athletes into confessing to possession of drugs and/or drug paraphernalia,” Allen added, noting nothing illegal was discovered.
Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman said the bus was pulled over for violating a state law which requires a bus or motor coach to operate in the two most right-hand lanes unless the bus or motor coach is preparing for a left turn or moving to or from an HOV lane, and the driver was ultimately issued a warning.
Allen said he immediately began an investigation into the incident, and the university filed a Freedom of Information Act request consistent with Georgia law requesting body-camera footage from everyone involved at the scene and any paperwork from the incident.
Allen said the deadline for the request ended Thursday, and he has yet to receive a response from Sheriff Bowman’s office.
“The first six weeks of the year, HBCUs around the country, including Delaware State University were subjected to a round of bomb threats. As our visibility has increased, so has the malignant intentions of the worst among us. It’s a reality too many Americans of color must live with. So much so that even being stopped for a minor traffic violation is cause for concern,” Allen said.
Interaction was ‘traumatic,’ team member says
In body camera video of the traffic stop released by the sheriff’s office, deputies are seen informing the driver they pulled him over for a left lane violation. While one deputy is checking a driver’s license, another has a K-9 sniff the vehicle.
At one point in the video, the deputy running the license is heard asking another deputy, “Positive on the truck?” He then says, “There’s a bunch of dang schoolgirls on the truck. Probably some weed.”
A few minutes later, deputies are seen outside the bus putting on blue surgical-like gloves before they begin the search. Deputies are seen going through bags, searching makeup kits and other items inside them.
Eventually, a deputy goes back on the bus and tells the passengers nothing illegal was found.
Saniya Craft, a freshman lacrosse player, told CNN in an earlier interview she and her teammates remained calm because they knew they did not have anything illegal.
“It was traumatic,” she said, “and we were surprised, but we just were really trying to stay steady and calm, trying not to question too much.”
“I just knew, if we were a different colored team — which is sad to say — that it wouldn’t have been presented like that, and I don’t even believe that we would have gotten searched,” she said.
The stop happened as part of the department’s “commercial interdiction detail,” Bowman, who is Black, said Tuesday at a news conference, adding other commercial vehicles were stopped that day, including a bus where “contraband” was found.
“Before entering the motor coach, the deputy was not aware that this school was historically Black or aware of the race of the occupants due to the height of the vehicle and tinted windows,” Bowman said Tuesday.
“We were not aware that this stop was received as racial profiling,” Bowman said. “Although I do not believe any racial profiling took place based on the information I currently have, I welcome feedback from our community on ways that our law enforcement practices can be improved while still maintaining the law.”
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CNN’s Joe Sutton, Claudia Dominguez and Aya Elamroussi contributed to this report.