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Delaware State University says Ga. sheriffs racially profiled lacrosse team, files civil rights complaint

Last month, deputies in Georgia stopped a bus carrying members of the historically Black university’s women’s lacrosse team and searched their belongings.

Delaware State's women's lacrosse team was on the bus driving back from games in Florida and Georgia when they were pulled over and searched.
Delaware State's women's lacrosse team was on the bus driving back from games in Florida and Georgia when they were pulled over and searched.Read moreCourtesy of Delaware State University

Delaware State University, a historically Black institution, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division on Wednesday asking it to investigate sheriff’s deputies in Georgia who stopped a bus carrying members of the university’s women’s lacrosse team and searched their belongings without cause.

On April 20, after matches in Georgia and Florida, team members were riding their bus back to Dover when a Liberty County deputy pulled them over on I-95.

The deputy told the driver that he was “improperly traveling in the left-hand lane,” which the deputy said was off-limits to trucks, according to the complaint written by university president Tony Allen and lawyer LaKresha Moultrie.

The driver, who was Black and has been driving buses for 21 years, was asked to walk to the deputy’s cruiser to check his license and documents. Six more officers, all of whom were white, per the complaint, arrived, as well as a narcotics-sniffing dog.

According to body camera footage obtained by the university, the officer who initially stopped the bus can be heard saying, “Bunch of dang schoolgirls on the bus ... probably some weed.”

There were 25 athletes on the bus, most of whom were Black, plus two coaches and an athletic trainer, the school said.

Deputies asked the driver to open the bus’ cargo hold, saying it was “their job” to search it. The driver complied, and the dog sniffed the belongings and indicated he did not find anything, the complaint says.

Two officers also entered the bus to talk to the athletes, in what the university says were attempts to “elicit incriminating statements.”

“We’re gonna check y’all’s luggage. If there is anything in y’all’s luggage, we’re probably going to find it. OK?” the officer told them, according to a video. “If there is something in there that is questionable, please tell me now. Because, if we find it, guess what? We’re not gonna be able to help you.”

The athletes remained silent.

Officers continued to search their belongings, including their toiletry and cosmetics bags, clothes, and a wrapped graduation gift, the complaint says. Nothing was found, and no traffic citation or warning was issued to the driver after the nearly 45-minute stop.

Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman has defended the deputies, saying that the search was legal and that officers did not know the race of the occupants before pulling them over. He said that the stop was part of the office’s commercial trafficking strategy, and that another bus had been stopped earlier in the day and contraband was located.

“This is the same protocol that is expected to be used no matter the race, gender, age, or destination of the passenger,” Bowman said at a news conference.

In a statement, the office said the stop is being “formally reviewed” for policy violations, and it will “use feedback to reassess our training standards as needed.”

Bowman cited part of a law that says a bus is considered a truck and is not allowed to drive in the left lane. But in the complaint, university officials say that this is outdated, and that the law’s latest language says buses are not considered trucks, making the stop illegitimate and illegal from the start.

“Surely the DSU Women’s Lacrosse Team is not the first or only group of people — more particularly, people of color — to have been subjected to this type of illegal behavior,” the complaint says. “But for their bravery, composure, and presence of mind to record portions of this illegal stop, we might never have known its full extent.”

“Our students and staff deserve to know that this brazen, illegal, and discriminatory conduct will not go unchecked,” the complaint says. It calls for an independent investigation into the department’s practices and procedures.

The incident was first reported by sophomore lacrosse player Sydney Anderson in the student newspaper. Delaware State is one of only three HBCUs with a women’s lacrosse team.

Read the complaint: