'You're in Aiken County now': Pattern of warrantless bus searches on I-20 emerges

·25 min read

May 22—At 2:07 a.m. on June 19, 2018, an Aiken County Sheriff's Office deputy pulled over a commercial bus traveling east on Interstate 20 for allegedly crossing over the centerline. Within three minutes, two more deputies had arrived and a police dog was searching two dozen passengers' bags.

Deputy Daniel Puckett, who stopped the bus, would later admit he didn't know whether the bus driver or any passengers were engaged in any criminal activity. Yet, deputies used a knife to slice open and search a Maryland man's suitcase — conducting what a judge would later rule as an unconstitutional search.

Puckett and his colleagues, Deputy Robert Rodriguez and Lt. Michael Goodwin, told the man he was not free to leave and questioned him without reading him his rights — a violation of sheriff's office regulations.

Deputies then threatened to arrest another passenger for public disorderly conduct, simply for questioning the legality of the officers' actions, court records show.

The traffic stop yielded 27 pounds of marijuana, 12,000 ecstasy pills, one arrest — and a court case revealing a troubling pattern of nonconsensual, warrantless drug investigations, an Uncovered investigation by the Aiken Standard found.

Reports of a dozen similar incidents emerged during legal proceedings in South Carolina's Second Judicial Circuit. Puckett, a long-serving K-9 officer, also testified to previously stopping and searching around 30 commercial buses for minor traffic violations.

On Dec. 16, 2021, Second Circuit Judge Clifton Newman tossed out the case after finding that deputies lacked probable cause to stop the bus and search its passengers. Though drugs were found, he ruled deputies had violated the passengers' civil rights in the process.

Furthermore, video from the incident appeared to contradict the deputy's stated reason for pulling over the bus in the first place.

The ruling ended the case, but hard questions linger about tactics employed by Aiken County deputies in combating drug-running along the interstate. Deputies appear to have used minor traffic violations as a pretense for conducting wholesale searches with little or no probable cause.

Allen Chaney, director of legal advocacy at ACLU of South Carolina, said seizing a multi-passenger vehicle in this manner is problematic from a civil rights standpoint.

"Pulling over a bus for a traffic violation doesn't give you license to then detain that bus for an hour and then start searching through bags," Chaney said.

On April 20, a similar search was conducted on a university bus mainly carrying Black athletes through Liberty County, Georgia — making national news and drawing complaints about racial profiling.

Six white deputies pulled over the bus on I-95 for an alleged traffic violation and searched through the Delaware State University women's lacrosse team's bags in an effort to find drugs. Nothing illegal was discovered in the bags and deputies did not issue a ticket for the alleged traffic violation, similar to the Aiken County stops.

It remains unclear when and why Aiken County deputies began targeting commercial buses along the interstate, whether improper searches played a role in other stops, and what factor race may have played in these incidents. Reports indicate all passengers charged in the bus stops were Black; the deputies, predominantly white.

These questions prompted an Aiken Standard investigation into the Aiken County Sheriff's Office handling and oversight of the traffic stops.

The newspaper filed several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to access dashcam footage, examined hundreds of legal documents, and conducted multiple interviews to determine the extent and reasons behind the questionable searches.

Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt, a publicly elected official, declined multiple interview requests from the Aiken Standard regarding the case and pattern of warrantless searches.

The Aiken Standard's investigation into the department's overreach is part of a collaboration with The Post and Courier's Uncovered project, which aims to expose misconduct and questionable government actions across South Carolina. The Aiken Standard is among 18 news outlets partnering on Uncovered.

A pattern of crossing lines

Interstate 20 winds through northern Aiken County on its heavily-traveled path between Atlanta and Columbia. Thousands of vehicles travel along the route, but one spot in particular has caught the eye of Aiken County Sheriff's Office deputies.

Mile marker 35 is probably not a familiar guidepost to most people, but that's where the state operates a weigh station for large commercial vehicles — and it's become a popular fishing hole for deputies looking to make drug busts.

During an evidentiary hearing in the 2018 bus stop case, the defense asked deputy Puckett how many times he had pulled over a commercial bus traveling through the state in the early morning hours. "I've probably stopped about 20 or 30 buses," Puckett responded, according to a court transcript obtained by the Aiken Standard.

The Aiken Standard obtained copies of 11 more incident reports from the sheriff's office involving drug seizures on commercial buses that were generated from 2014 to 2021. It is unclear how many more buses were pulled over and how many people's belongings were searched without result during that period. That's because incident reports are only generated when there is a drug seizure or arrest, according to Capt. Eric Abdullah, public information officer for the Aiken County Sheriff's Office.

The reports do not identify the bus companies involved in the stops because the sheriff's office does not document company names, according to Abdullah.

Officials refused to provide additional details about the bus operators or the routes they were on. It remains unclear where the buses departed from or where they were going to.

Of the 11 additional incident reports, which were generated by four deputies including Puckett, eight cited the reason for the traffic stop being lane violations — similar to the 2018 bus stop.

The amount of drugs seized in the additional reports ranged from several pounds of marijuana and piles of pills to just a few grams of marijuana.

The six reports involving Puckett and his K-9, Roxy, detail traffic stops and patrol checks on commercial buses in the early morning hours from approximately 1 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., with many occurring at the same mile marker.

"I believe that's where the officers have been pulling over larger vehicles so they can get those vehicles off the roadway for safety," Abdullah said.

It is unclear if Puckett followed the vehicles until they reached the landmark, or if he was parked at the weigh station waiting for commercial buses to pass by.

The Aiken County Sheriff's Office does not have an oversight policy related to traffic stop patterns, according to Abdullah.

"There's no red flags because the officer out there is working off of information that's being shared," he said.

It is unclear what kind of information is being shared, or by whom.

Puckett and the two other deputies that responded as back-up during the 2018 bus stop, Rodriguez and Goodwin, were not reprimanded for their actions during the traffic stop despite the judge's findings, according to Abdullah. There have not been any internal affairs investigations and no disciplinary actions are expected.

Chaney, of the ACLU, said when a sheriff's office fails to handle these types of matters in a transparent manner and hold deputies accountable for their actions, misconduct can fester in the department.

"It's in everybody's self interest to make sure that nobody goes down," he said. "Without meaningful policy changes in the legislature or local government, that lack of transparency will allow misconduct to go unnoticed and unpunished."

Puckett began his law enforcement career with the Richmond County (Georgia) Sheriff's Office in July 2001, according to an officer profile obtained from the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. He bounced between that agency and another sheriff's office before landing a job with the Aiken County Sheriff's Office on Aug. 15, 2014. There was no indication of any misconduct or issues with his employment, according to a report obtained from the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy. He is still currently employed by the Aiken County Sheriff's Office.

Rodriguez is no longer employed by the Aiken County Sheriff's Office; he resigned on Sept. 5, 2019, according to the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.

Goodwin, who responded as back-up during the 2018 bus stop and was the approving officer on five of Puckett's incident reports, is still employed by the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, as of April 26, 2022.

Similar stops initiated by other deputies

The other five incident reports involving drug seizures on commercial buses were generated by other Aiken County deputies.

The stops occurred at different mile markers along I-20 in the early morning hours.

Deputies conducted one stop because "the bus shook the patrol car very hard," three more because the drivers allegedly crossed over the centerline and another because the bus allegedly had a headlight out. Puckett and Roxy responded as back-up in one of the cases.

While the reports generally read similarly to Puckett's, one report generated on July 7, 2018 states the bus driver "was agitated" and told police "he was told by DOT [the department of transportation] and his boss not to stop the bus," according to the report.

Although it may have been hard to distinguish during early morning hours, all of the bus drivers pulled over and suspects charged in the 12 stops were Black. It is unclear if race played a role in the stops.

These sorts of encounters are known in police circles as "pretext" or "investigatory" stops. Officers use a minor violation to stop and question someone they think might be involved in a more serious crime. Law enforcement officials say these stops are an important crime fighting tool, but critics contend they are an overly aggressive use of police powers that tend to disproportionately impact people of color.

Data provided to the state by the Aiken County Sheriff's Office shows that deputies conducted 3,407 traffic stops between January 2018 and January 2019 that did not result in an arrest or a citation. Though Black people make up 25 percent of the county's population, according to the U.S. Census, they accounted for 44 percent of the people stopped by deputies in those encounters.

Eugene White, president of the Aiken County Branch of the NAACP, said the balance between public safety and public trust is delicate.

"Whenever one of those parts of the equation becomes unbalanced, that makes the whole community unstable," White said. "Law enforcement professionals have the ability to take one's freedom. If we see that certain deputies continue to be the ones that are making these stops, then it's incumbent upon this leadership to put a stop to that."

White said there needs to be standardized bias and profiling training, as well as independent oversight.

"I think citizens review boards are an excellent way to do that," White said.

The City of Aiken established a Citizens Review Board in 2016 in response to a lawsuit alleging that an Aiken County man and woman were subjected to an illegal roadside cavity search during a traffic stop in October 2014.

The board reviews cases within the Aiken Department of Public Safety. The Aiken County Sheriff's Office and the North Augusta Department of Public safety do not have citizen review boards.

Hunt, who was elected sheriff of Aiken County in 2003, declined to speak with the Aiken Standard about the incidents despite receiving multiple requests.

Motion to suppress

On Jan. 3, 2019, Puckett testified at a preliminary hearing for the Maryland man who was charged following the 2018 bus stop.

Puckett explained that he pulled over the bus because "the driver hit the line a couple times driving down the interstate," according to a court transcript.

Rodriguez and Goodwin arrived as back-up and removed the driver from the bus while Puckett's dog, Roxy, sniffed the outside of the luggage compartment, according to an incident report.

Puckett said he decided to issue a warning ticket for the lane violation because the driver didn't seem impaired, according to the court transcript.

Goodwin testified that the purpose of the stop had effectively ended once Puckett had him write a warning ticket. But officers stuck around to see what Roxy might find in the luggage area, according to the transcript.

This statement served as proof that the stop was prolonged, and therefore, unconstitutional, according to Judge Newman.

Chaney said the scope and duration of a traffic stop has to be related to the justification for the stop itself.

"If you pulled someone over for not using a turn signal, you can't detain them for 30 minutes, looking for other things," he said. "The scope of the stop has to be related to the reasonable suspicion you had to justify the seizure in the first place."

Deputies did not tell the bus driver he was free to leave before conducting the sniff search.

Puckett's K-9 alerted to drugs and the deputies began searching all of the bags in the luggage compartment, including bags that were located outside of the area the dog indicated, according to the transcript. During the hearing, Puckett testified that the dog did not sniff each individual bag because it would have taken longer.

Two suitcases containing drugs were located in the bus during the search. One contained 27 pounds of marijuana. The other, a locked suitcase, contained approximately 12,000 ecstasy pills and a prescription bottle with the Maryland man's name on it, according to the transcript.

Neither of the suitcases were claimed by passengers. When questioned by deputies, the Maryland man said the suitcase containing ecstasy was his — but he indicated that he did not put a lock on it and the bag was loaded onto the bus by someone in Atlanta, according to the transcript. A key was not found in the defendant's possession or on the bus.

The Maryland man was arrested and charged with trafficking ecstasy.

Following the preliminary hearing, the defendant's attorney filed a motion to prevent the drugs from being used as evidence against his client, alleging they were the product of an unreasonable search. He also accused deputies of extracting incriminating statements from the man without a lawyer present.

At a Dec. 16 hearing, prosecutor Jacqueline Charbonneau disputed the defense's arguments. She maintained there was probable cause to search the defendant's suitcase without a warrant because he did not claim the drugs inside the bag.

The state conceded that the defendant's statements after being handcuffed were involuntary and that deputies did not inform him he had the right to remain silent or the right to an attorney. However, the prosecution argued the defendant's statements prior to being handcuffed were voluntary.

After reviewing sheriff's office videos of the incident, Judge Newman found the deputies did not have probable cause to stop the bus and were conducting a warrantless drug investigation that constituted an unreasonable invasion of privacy.

He noted that the search occurred after Puckett had already decided to issue a warning ticket and that there were "no indicators of suspicious activity present" to support the search.

The judge cited these factors in granting the defendant's motion and tossing out the case.

"Deputy Puckett's testimony is inconsistent with the video recording because it fails to show the bus strike any line on the road," according to the judge's order.

The Aiken Standard obtained a copy of the deputies' dashcam footage through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and the footage did not show the bus traveling over the centerline.

The suppression order also mentions audio from passengers heard on the deputies' bodycam footage, which FOIA does not require the sheriff's office to release to the media.

"One police officer threatened to arrest a passenger on the bus for public disorderly conduct simply because the passenger stated that the officer's actions were unlawful (after the officer had requested identification from all passengers prior to confirmation of any illegal activity)...," according to the order. The passenger is quoted saying, "Illegal search and seizure," to which an officer responded, "Call it what you want," "You want to go with me," "You're in Aiken County now," and "We ain't out to get nobody that don't need to be got."

It is unclear which deputy made the statements to the passenger.

The court said it is clear by the deputies' actions and questioning that they deviated from the traffic mission and were conducting a drug investigation, according to the order.

The Aiken Standard reached out to the defendant's attorney multiple times in hopes of interviewing the man at the center of the case. The attorney said his client was hesitant and did not wish to be identified or interviewed.

Reaction to ruling

Abdullah, of the sheriff's office, said drug smuggling is a known problem on the interstate. He said commercial buses are attractive to smugglers because they are less regulated than other methods of transportation.

"You don't go through TSA to get on the bus," Abdullah said. "Your luggage is not searched, you're not searched, and your property is not being X-rayed. There have been times we've found passengers with firearms on a bus ... so you can easily get on a bus carrying a large quantity of illegal narcotics."

Second Circuit Solicitor Bill Weeks had a similar take. He said he doesn't agree with the judge's ruling and maintains "there was sufficient legal basis for the search."

The prosecution relied on a previous case, United States v. Hernandez, to support the stop and search, the court found. In that case, an officer who conducted stops as part of a DEA drug trafficking task force stopped a bus operated by a company that transported Hispanic passengers traveling throughout the United States and Mexico.

The cases, however, had significant differences, the judge found. The Hernandez ruling doesn't say whether the officer was routinely pulling over buses on the same route for minor traffic violations, as Puckett had done. Puckett didn't indicate the bus was coming from a known drug hub, nor did he have any indications of suspicious activity beyond the traffic infraction, the judge stated.

Knowing drugs are transported on the interstate, and that buses could be carrying drugs, is not probable cause to stop a vehicle, according to Seth W. Stoughton, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina and former police officer.

"That's useful, that's certainly part of the analysis — but it's entirely speculative," Stoughton said, adding that the courts require officers to have specific information about the precise people or vehicles involved.

Chaney, of the ACLU, agreed. He said a hunch doesn't meet the threshold for justifying a stop under the Fourth Amendment.

"The fact that people traveling by bus don't have to go through TSA is not proof that a crime is, has, or is about to be committed," he said. "That's not a reasonable search or seizure, and that's exactly what the Fourth Amendment prohibits."

Abdullah said the sheriff's office will learn from the incident and incorporate those lessons into future training — but he challenged the notion that the case was a disappointment because it didn't yield a conviction. The search still kept dangerous drugs off the streets, he said.

"A little bit over [12,000] units of ecstasy and 27 pounds of marijuana were seized — the defendant is not getting that stuff back," he said. "So that's [12,000] pills that were going to go into a community somewhere along that line where that bus was going to stop, and we just took that poison off the street."

Chaney said that stance overlooks all of the unwarranted searches that fail to yield drugs or evidence of a crime. Those searches most often go unchallenged and remain outside the public's view because they don't enter the criminal justice system, he said.

"In cases where drugs aren't found, there's no incentive for citizens to bring claims that their constitutional rights were violated," he said. "They might file a complaint with the local police department, but it gets filed in the trash can."

Other traffic stops by Puckett

The six additional incident reports involving Deputy Daniel Puckett and his K-9, Roxy, detail traffic stops and patrol checks that have yet to be questioned in court.

These additional reports bring other issues to light — including the lack of legal representation for defendants in magistrate court and a lack of transparency in the sharing of bodycam footage.

June 23, 2018

The first report in the series was generated by Puckett just four days after the unconstitutional 2018 bus stop that started it all, at the same mile marker — mile marker 35 near Batesburg.

Puckett stopped the commercial bus for a lane violation at 2:25 a.m. Deputy Robert Rodriguez, who responded as back-up on the stop four days prior, arrived at the scene shortly after Puckett initiated the stop.

The bus driver opened the luggage area and Puckett's K-9 conducted a free air sniff, alerting to drugs, according to the report. Puckett conducted a hand search, locating a pink suitcase containing THC edibles.

The owner of the bag was not located and the suitcase containing the drugs, along with a gray Fendi belt and keys, was seized. The belt and keys were submitted as found property.

Aiken County is far from alone in targeting vehicles along South Carolina interstates for drug stops. Several departments, particularly those along I-95, have made substantial monetary gains by seizing assets generated from these stops.

A 2017 investigation by The Post and Courier indicated local police and county sheriffs hauled in more than $6.7 million through forfeitures in the previous budget year alone.

The Aiken Standard could not determine any instances where cash was taken during these stops; the reports do not mention the seizure of cash and other valuables.

Nov. 7, 2018

At 1:55 a.m. on Nov. 7, 2018, Puckett pulled over another commercial bus at mile marker 35 for an alleged lane violation.

Another deputy arrived as back-up, Puckett's K-9 conducted a sniff and a hand search ensued, according to the incident report. Multiple pounds of marijuana were located in two unclaimed suitcases; the drugs were seized and submitted for destruction.

The driver of the bus was issued a warning for the traffic violation and released.

Dec. 5, 2018

At 2:20 a.m. on Dec. 5, 2018, Puckett pulled over the same bus driver for an alleged lane violation at mile marker 35. Another deputy arrived as back-up, the K-9 conducted a sniff, and a hand search located a few grams of suspected marijuana in a duffle bag.

Inside of the duffle bag deputies found paperwork with the suspect's name on it. The suspect allegedly told police "the marijuana was for his personal use and the bag was his," according to the report.

The marijuana was submitted into the evidence locker for testing, and the driver was issued another warning for the traffic violation and released. Puckett "issued [the suspect] a citation and advised him of the court date and time to appear for the charge," according to the report.

The Wagener Magistrate Court said the suspect did not have legal representation.

Feb. 27, 2019

At 1:39 a.m. on Feb. 27, 2019, Puckett pulled over a commercial bus for an alleged lane violation at mile marker 11.

Another deputy arrived as back-up and K-9 Roxy conducted a sniff of the luggage compartment, according to the incident report. Puckett conducted a hand search of the luggage and located multiple pounds of marijuana in two pink suitcases.

The suitcases were not claimed by any of the passengers, and the marijuana was submitted for destruction. The bus driver was issued a warning for the traffic violation and released.

March 27, 2019

Exactly one month after the Feb. 27 stop, Puckett conducted a patrol check at the North Augusta Welcome Center at 1:28 a.m. on March 27, 2019.

Puckett "made contact with the listed bus driver and he gave consent for a free air sniff of the luggage area of the bus," according to the incident report. Another deputy arrived as back-up and K-9 Roxy sniffed the luggage compartment. Roxy alerted to drugs, and Puckett conducted a hand search of the luggage, locating marijuana and ecstasy pills in a gym bag.

The bag was not claimed by any of the passengers, and the drugs were submitted into the evidence locker for destruction. The driver of the bus was released.

Oct. 24, 2020

At 12:46 a.m. on Oct. 24, 2020, Puckett stopped next to a commercial bus parked at the Raceway gas station located at 2664 Columbia Highway North in Aiken. Another deputy arrived shortly after for back-up.

Puckett allegedly "smelled a strong odor of marijuana from the bus area" and when he exited his vehicle, stated "the odor was very strong on the driver's side of the bus," according to the incident report. Puckett then allegedly asked the bus driver if "it was OK to run a K-9 drug dog on the luggage compartment of the bus," to which the driver allegedly replied, "Yes, please do. I have smelled it all day."

Roxy searched the luggage area of the bus and gave a positive alert to a bag under the bus. Puckett "boarded the bus and explained that the dog alerted and the luggage and all bags would be searched," according to the report. Puckett then began searching all of the bags on board the bus, differentiating this search from previous searches.

A backpack containing a few grams of suspected marijuana was located, but was not claimed by anyone on the bus. Puckett located an ID in the bag belonging to the suspect and "he stated the marijuana was his," according to the report. Puckett charged the suspect and "advised him of the court date and time to appear for the ticket."

Puckett then helped the other deputy search the luggage under the bus, who notified Puckett "there was something in a black suitcase," according to the report. The suitcase was searched, and police located several pill bottles containing illegal unprescribed pills, a green powder substance, three bottles of an unknown liquid, two THC vape cartridges, several brown rolled marijuana cigarettes, three small plastic bags of marijuana and a firearm. The suitcase had an airline claim strap attached to it with the suspect's name on it, and he was charged with multiple drug possession charges and unlawful carrying of a firearm.

All charges were pending issuance of warrants with the local magistrate court.

As of May 18, the case is still open with the Second Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office.

On March 22, the Aiken Standard met with McMillian to reviewed dashcam footage of the incident. The video footage shows Roxy only searched the bus for about one minute, but the totality of the stop lasted about an hour. At one point, Puckett is heard telling another officer in the patrol vehicle a passenger on the bus alleged the search was unconstitutional.

It is unclear if similar conversations about the constitutionality of the searches occurred in any of the other stops because dashcam footage is only retained on the sheriff's office server for 90 days, unless the video is copied and placed into evidence as part of an investigation, according to Abdullah.

Additionally, bodycam footage is not releasable to the media through the Freedom of Information Act.

"Law enforcement fights tooth and nail to be kept from any form of public accountability for their misbehavior," said Allen Chaney, director of legal advocacy at ACLU of South Carolina. "In part, because they can operate with impunity, and in part, because the public doesn't have the information to hold them accountable. The purpose of bodycams is not to help law enforcement make cases — the purpose of bodycams is to help the public hold law enforcement accountable."

It is also unclear if Puckett followed proper procedure during these additional stops, advising the suspects they had the right to remain silent. Findings that these stops were unconstitutional would have only come out if the cases went to trial, which did not happen in most of the cases because the suspects were unrepresented in magistrate court.

The underfunding of indigent defense in magistrate courts is an issue statewide in South Carolina, according to Chaney. He said the South Carolina ACLU has been working on a case in Lexington County where a handful of years ago, they did not have any public defenders assigned to magistrate court.

"If you're going to violate someone's constitutional rights, writing them a ticket that sends them to the magistrate court is a pretty good plan for not being held accountable for it," he said. "Statistically, you're far less likely to end up with an attorney on the other side of the case looking into your conduct and trying to hold it against constitution."