Earlier this summer, a Kingsland police officer pulled over a Florida driver, a white woman, for speeding. The stop escalated after her passenger, a Black man, refused to allow the officer and Camden County Sheriff’s deputies to search him for weapons and the car for drugs.
The interaction recorded on police body cameras shows deputies cursing at the couple, throwing the passenger to the ground, and handcuffing him – before a drug-sniffing dog found no drugs in the vehicle.
Now, over one month later, the couple are facing a speeding ticket and two arrest warrants, for resisting arrest and for possession of narcotics paraphernalia. The Kingsland Police say the incident is under administrative review, and the officer who initiated the traffic stop has resigned. The sheriff’s office says its employees acted within normal parameters and blamed the stop’s escalation on the passenger’s refusal to cooperate with police.
A lawyer representing Scunickenyatta Jenkins, the passenger, believes the incident violated his client’s civil rights and is contesting the misdemeanor charges, which were signed by a judge only after deputies released Jenkins after a 48-hour detention, according to the sheriff’s office.
Two constitutional law experts say the incident is part of a troubling trend whereby traffic stops can become rife for abuse and individual rights to decline police searches have become hazy.
Jonathan Rapping, a law professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, says a 1996 Supreme Court decision gives officers wide leeway to use minor traffic offenses as a pretext to make snap decisions about who to subject to wider searches. This exacerbates implicit bias among law enforcement and subjects Black people to more police scrutiny, he said.
“It’s because there is a stereotype. There is a bias, and the Supreme Court has allowed for police to act on that bias,” said Rapping, who is also founder of Gideon’s Promise, an organization that trains public defenders. “I suspect that’s what happened in this case.”
The details of what happened to Marjorie Burns and Jenkins as they drove to South Carolina for her godmother’s birthday offer a window into what the Camden County Sheriff’s Office considers standard operating procedure at traffic stops.
Request to search
Before 10 a.m. on July 17, Burns and Jenkins were heading north on I-95 through Camden County when Kingsland Police Officer Cameron Wilkinson pulled them over onto the median.
Wilkinson approached the driver’s door and asked Burns for her license and registration, according to his body camera footage. He informed them they were going 93 mph, well over the speed limit.
Burns disputed that. She told Wilkinson they were heading up to South Carolina from Daytona Beach for her godmother’s birthday.
The footage shows Wilkinson ran Burns’ information through dispatch. When the dispatcher told him that Burns’ license was valid, he returned to the couple. He then turned to the passenger.
“Do you have your license on you?” Wilkinson asked Jenkins, according to the footage. When Jenkins said no, Wilkinson asked for his name and date of birth.
“Do I have to?” Jenkins asked the officer. “Can I ask what for?”
“You don’t have to. I was just identifying you is all,” Wilkinson said. Jenkins then provided his name and date of birth.
“Is there anything illegal inside the vehicle at all?” Wilkinson then asked, “Any large sums of cash? Anything like that? Drugs, guns?”
Burns told the officer no. Then, Wilkinson asked to search the car.
“I mean you can,” Burns said initially before Jenkins protested, telling the officer there wasn’t any probable cause to search the car.
“I was just asking. There’s no specific reason,” Wilkinson responded. Burns told the officer he could not search the car.
The Kingsland officer returned to his patrol car and used his cellphone to contact Camden County Sheriff’s Deputy Christi Newman, K9 officer. Newman didn’t answer but she arrived at the scene after Wilkinson appeared to request her over the radio.
When Newman arrived around five minutes later, the traffic stop began to escalate.
She told Burns to move their car and instructed the city cop that the two should pat down the driver and passenger, according to Newman’s body camera footage.
The officers asked both Jenkins and Burns to step out of the car.
Deputy Newman told them she wanted her K9 dog to do a “free air search” around the car.
Jenkins got out and began filming the encounter on his phone. Newman’s body camera showed Jenkins kept stepping away from the officers as they tried to pat him down.
“You have no reason to touch me,” he said. Deputy Newman began yelling at Jenkins.
“Get over here now,” she said, “I am not playing.”
She then called for backup, while Wilkinson patted down an increasingly agitated Jenkins.
Jenkins repeatedly yelled at the officer for the reason for the pat down. Jenkins asked for a supervisor.
“Well it ain’t f—–g Walmart, you don’t get to ask for a sergeant,” Newman shouted back at Jenkins.
They continued to argue with each other.
“Dude, you are this close to going to jail,” Newman said to Jenkins.
According to her body camera footage, Newman went to her patrol car to get a leash for her K9 and saw her colleague, Deputy Alex Watson, arrive at the scene from the other side of the interstate.
“Hey! Get him!” She shouted at Watson, referring to Jenkins. “Get the guy!”
Watson approached Jenkins while holding handcuffs, Watson’s body camera showed. “Put your hands behind your back,” he told Jenkins twice. Jenkins argued and didn’t move.
Watson put handcuffs on Jenkins’ left wrist. He told Jenkins to drop his phone, which was in his right hand.
Jenkins didn’t budge.
Watson then grabbed Jenkins’ neck and slammed his torso and head onto the Kingsland patrol car, while shouting at him to give up his phone, according to body camera footage.
Both Newman and Wilkinson rushed to grab Jenkins’ right hand, the footage showed. Newman continued to shout profanities.
Watson pushed Jenkins face down onto the grass median. They took his phone away from him.
When Jenkins is handcuffed, Deputy Watson began cursing.
“You about a dumb motherf—-r, ain’t you?” Watson said as he pushed his hand into the top of Jenkins’ back, the body camera footage showed.
When Watson noticed Burns, the driver, filming the encounter from her phone, Watson snatched her device too, his body camera showed.
Search for drugs
With Jenkins handcuffed, Newman brought her K9 to Burns’ car. She led the dog around the vehicle and then had the dog jump into the car through the open driver’s window, according to the deputy sheriff’s body camera.
Newman told the other officers they were cleared to search the car when her dog alerted to drugs, the footage showed.
Officer Wilkinson and Deputy Watson then spent around 20 minutes searching the car.
According to arrest warrants filed later, they found no drugs, but they did allegedly find drug paraphernalia.
“A search of the vehicle was conducted and yielded multiple baggies containing a green leafy residue, a black scale that was covered in a green leafy substance and a THC pen charger/battery labeled ‘ooze.’ This brand is commonly associated with providing THC products,” a warrant said.
While the search was ongoing, Deputy Newman repeatedly used profanities as she described the encounter to other officers and a Kingsland Police supervisor who had arrived at the scene.
“He disrespected me. I was about to beat his a–, ok?” Newman said to the supervisor, according to body camera footage.
“He kept mouthing. So I called my people and I said, ‘Y’all get here,’ ‘cus this ain’t working,” Newman said. “We’re going to take him to the ground, and we’re going to beat his a–.”
After the search, Deputy Watson put Jenkins into his patrol car, according to the footage. His girlfriend asked what he was being arrested for.
“You’ll find out after he’s booked,” Watson told Burns.
Wilkinson, meanwhile, wrote her speeding ticket while Watson drove Jenkins to the Camden County Detention Center.
Quality of evidence under scrutiny
Deputy Newman said she believed Jenkins disrespected her, but her body camera footage raises questions about the quality of evidence she used to suspect any involvement of drugs.
During and after the search of the car, all three Camden officers claimed to smell marijuana. The paraphernalia Jenkins is charged with having is described to have “green leafy” materials on it, according to the warrants.
Newman, however, said that her K9 is not trained to detect marijuana, according to her body camera.
“My dog is trained and imprinted on four drugs: meth, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin. Alright? Not marijuana,” Newman told Burns, the driver ticketed for speeding.
Jim Fleissner, a professor at Mercer University School of Law and a former Assistant U.S. Attorney of Chicago, says that the sequence of the K9 officer’s actions raises further legal questions.
“The dog went into the car when there was no consent,” Fleissner said. “And I think that’s a problem for the police.”
Jenkins’ lawyer, Jackie Patterson, discovered that his client was facing an arrest warrant when told by The Current.
“It doesn’t make sense to give a man charges after you book him into jail and let him leave,” Patterson said.
In Georgia, the statute which Jenkins allegedly violated pertains to “a person who knowingly and willfully obstructs or hinders any law enforcement officer in the lawful discharge of his official duties.”
Fleissner, the former assistant U.S. attorney, says that Jenkins had a right to express his displeasure, but whether he became a threat to police is open to interpretation.
“It’s really a judgment call whether his confrontational conduct rose to the level where the police were going to be concerned for their own safety,” he said.
Capt. Bruce with the Camden County Sheriff’s Office said Jenkins was to blame for the incident escalating from a speeding violation to the forceful arrest and drug investigation.
“Normally we have people who are going to cooperate. They present their driver’s license, their insurance, anything that’s asked of them,” Bruce said. “The gentleman became very belligerent. That’s when the deputy stepped in.”
Kingsland Police Department Chief Rick Evans declined to answer questions about the agency’s traffic stop policy and the incident, stating it was under “administrative review,” when reached last week.
Wilkinson, the officer who initiated the traffic stop, has resigned, according to disciplinary documents, after an unrelated high-speed chase in which he wrecked his patrol car a week after the traffic stop.
It was his second high-speed pursuit in nine months, and the city determined that Wilkinson was deemed a liability to the City of Kingsland.
The police department, at the behest of Kingsland’s city manager, sought to transfer him to the city’s fire department. “This will allow Officer Wilkinson to retain his Georgia POST status, should he wish to pursue employment as a Law Enforcement Officer elsewhere,” the document said.
Wilkinson declined the transfer.
Dangerous for drivers?
Timothy Bessent, Sr., president of the Camden County NAACP branch, said his group asked that the sheriff’s deputies involved in the incident be taken off the street until a thorough investigation could happen.
Bessent, who reviewed the body camera footage of the incident, said the traffic stop could have easily turned deadly. As a resident of Camden County, he said he doesn’t want it to be known as a place that’s dangerous for motorists.
“We don’t want the reputation: ‘Don’t go through Camden County.’”