RALEIGH, N.C. -- A historically Black university in North Carolina announced Monday that it has filed a complaint with the Department of Justice seeking a review of a search of a bus carrying students during a traffic stop in South Carolina last month.
Shaw University President Paulette Dillard has accused law enforcement officers in Spartanburg County of racially profiling the 18 students traveling on a contract bus from Raleigh, North Carolina, to a conference in Atlanta on Oct. 5.
Two South Carolina sheriffs have denied that racial profiling played a part in the traffic stop and said the bus was pulled over because it had been swerving.
But at a news conference Monday, Dillard said the issue is how the alleged minor violation turned into a drug search, whether every stop prompts such a search and, if not, what does trigger a search.
“The harmful effects of eroding individual rights under the pretext of law and order are real – and they are rampant all over the country,” she said. “Let’s be clear… racism is about power and systems; and just because there isn’t a knee on someone’s neck doesn’t mean that no harm is being done.”
At a news conference last month, Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright called the racial profiling accusations “just false.” Officers stopped the unmarked bus with tinted windows because it had been swerving, he said. The stop was part of “Operation Rolling Thunder,” a weeklong anti-drug campaign in which deputies and officers with agencies from around the state patrol the county’s highways.
“If anything we’re ever doing is racist, I want to know it, I want to fix it and I want to never let it happen again,” Wright said. “But this case right here has absolutely nothing to do with racism.”
A leashed dog “ran through the baggage,” turning up nothing illegal, Wright said. Police body camera footage shows officers searching several bags in the bus’ underbelly storage. The driver received a warning.
The university’s complaint states that a lane violation would be insufficient justification for a drug search and students’ right to privacy was violated because while the driver consented to a luggage compartment search, passengers didn’t consent to a search of their individual luggage. It also alleges that Operation Rolling Thunder disproportionately targeted Black drivers.
Cherokee County Sheriff Steve Mueller said the officers “didn’t do anything wrong” and could not have known the races of the people inside the bus when they pulled it over.
Wright and Mueller declined to comment Monday on the complaint.
Democratic members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation asked the Justice Department last month to investigate the incident.
The traffic stop comes after an April incident in Georgia, where sheriff’s deputies pulled over the Delaware State University women’s lacrosse team bus and searched it for drugs. Tony Allen, the president of the HBCU, said he was “incensed” and accused the law enforcement officers of intimidation and humiliation.
Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman, who is Black, said in May that deputies had found drugs on a different bus that same morning. The team’s chartered bus was stopped because it was traveling in the left lane, a violation of Georgia law, according to Bowman, who said deputies searched the bus after a drug-sniffing dog “alerted” alongside it. No one was arrested or charged and the driver received a warning.