Spartanburg sheriff defends traffic stop of HBCU students that used drug-sniffing dog – Charleston Post Courier

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Updated: November 2, 2022 @ 12:34 am
A drug-sniffing dog, part of the search-and-seizure sting Operation Rolling Thunder, is deployed to detect illicit drugs during the Oct. 5, 2022, stop on I-85 of a charter bus carrying students of a historically Black North Carolina college, Shaw University. Nothing illegal was found. Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office/Provided
Body-cam video shows a deputy performing a drug search as part of Operation Rolling Thunder during the Oct. 5, 2022, stop on I-85 of a charter bus carrying students of a historically Black North Carolina college, Shaw University. Nothing illegal was found. Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office/Provided
Cherokee County Sheriff Steve Mueller (second from right) defends the Oct. 5, 2022, traffic stop of a charter bus carrying students from Shaw University, a historically Black university in Raleigh, N.C., during a press conference on Oct. 31. Officers used a dog to search the cargo bay of the bus for drugs but did not find anything illegal, and the charter bus driver received a warning for “improper lane use.” Spencer Donovan/Staff

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A drug-sniffing dog, part of the search-and-seizure sting Operation Rolling Thunder, is deployed to detect illicit drugs during the Oct. 5, 2022, stop on I-85 of a charter bus carrying students of a historically Black North Carolina college, Shaw University. Nothing illegal was found. Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office/Provided
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SPARTANBURG COUNTY — Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright is defending the stop and search of a charter bus carrying students of a historically Black North Carolina college, a stop the school’s president has claimed was racially motivated and prompted members of Congress to request a federal investigation.
In a news conference Oct. 31, Wright called Shaw University President Paulette Dillard’s claims three weeks earlier “slanderous and libelous” and expressed frustration that multiple attempts to reach the president of the Raleigh-based school have gone unanswered.
He also shared body camera footage that showed the bus driver consenting to the search. After using a drug-sniffing dog, nothing illegal was found, and the bus and its passengers were released after about 10 minutes. 
The case has received widespread attention and brought renewed scrutiny over the sheriff’s use of “Operation Rolling Thunder,” a weeklong, multijurisdictional sting that floods I-85 with law enforcement with the main goal of seizing illegal drugs and contraband.
In a widely circulated opinion column nearly a week after the Oct. 5 incident, Dillard said that she was “outraged” over the stop and associated it with police harassment of Black people in years past.
“This scene is reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s — armed police, interrogating innocent Black students, conducting searches without probable cause, and blood-thirsty dogs,” Dillard wrote. “It’s hard to imagine. Yet, it happened to the Shaw University community, and it is happening throughout this nation in an alarming fashion. It must be stopped.”
N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper through a spokesman expressed “deep concern” about the bus search, according to multiple news reports. And five Democratic members of Congress from North Carolina wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to request a Department of Justice investigation.
During his news conference, Wright said the bus carrying a combination of 20 students and school personnel to a financial literacy conference in Atlanta was stopped because the driver was weaving in traffic. Deputies could not see who was inside because the windows were darkly tinted, he said.
When asked the pretext to use a drug-sniffing dog to search the bus’s outside luggage compartments, Wright replied only that his deputies were “doing Operation Rolling Thunder.”
Stops only occur with a valid traffic violation, he said, and deputies can use a dog to do a “free air sniff” or receive consent. In this case, the driver, who worked for a private company and was not affiliated with the school, gave consent.
Body-cam video shows a deputy performing a drug search as part of Operation Rolling Thunder during the Oct. 5, 2022, stop on I-85 of a charter bus carrying students of a historically Black North Carolina college, Shaw University. Nothing illegal was found. Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office/Provided
During the operation earlier this month, deputies stopped 39 buses and in one case seized $500,000 and two kilograms of cocaine, he said.
“The bus driver may not have any idea what’s going on underneath when (passengers) throw the bags under there,” Wright said. “That’s why we check.”
Such operations are used across South Carolina and involve what’s known as an “interdiction team” specifically targeting interstates and suspected illegal trafficking.
This type of stop has its critics.
In Aiken County, a judge last December threw out a drug prosecution after ruling that deputies there didn’t have probable cause to search a commercial bus on Interstate 20, even though drugs were found.
During a murder trial earlier this month, a Greenville County Sheriff’s deputy who served on an interdiction team described how officers will watch motorists and try to read body language. A person who has “a thousand yard stare” or keeps their hands on the steering wheel at “10 and 2” instead of a typical more-relaxed position can appear suspicious, the deputy said.
Attempts to reach Shaw University officials and Cooper’s office were not successful Oct. 31.
Cherokee County Sheriff Steve Mueller (second from right) defends the Oct. 5, 2022, traffic stop of a charter bus carrying students from Shaw University, a historically Black university in Raleigh, N.C., during a press conference on Oct. 31. Officers used a dog to search the cargo bay of the bus for drugs but did not find anything illegal, and the charter bus driver received a warning for “improper lane use.” Spencer Donovan/Staff
Despite calls for federal law enforcement involvement, Wright said there is nothing to be investigated because the officers handled the stop legally and professionally.
Wright released body-cam videos from two deputies depicting the roughly 10-minute stop. A third officer, a narcotics agent with the State Law Enforcement Division, also participated.
The videos depict deputies stepping up the entrance stairs to order the driver to present his license and associated documents. The driver complies. A deputy speaks with a young woman sitting in the front of the bus, and she describes who the group is.
The driver is asked to step out of the bus and is questioned.
The driver consents to a search of the luggage compartments. A drug-sniffing dog barks to alert the presence of a potential illicit substance.
Deputies searching through bags find personal effects such as clothes and sanitary items, as well as a box of Krispy Kreme donuts.
In one bag, the search turns up a pill bottle, and a member of the search team says that if it’s a controlled substance, the dog has done a good job.
The pill bottle was filled with “cetirizine,” a generic form of the allergy medicine Zyrtec.
The driver was issued a warning.



Follow Spencer Donovan on Twitter @sdonovan5.
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Spencer Donovan is a reporter in The Post and Courier’s Greenville newsroom.
The case has received widespread attention and brought renewed scrutiny over the sheriff’s use of “Operation Rolling Thunder,” a weeklong, multijurisdictional sting that floods I-85 with law enforcement with the main goal of seizing illegal drugs and contraband. Read moreSpartanburg sheriff defends traffic stop of HBCU students that used drug-sniffing dog
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