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Towns County Sheriff's Office comments on jurisdiction controversy

Towns County Sheriff Ken "Ode" Henderson


Press Release

The Towns County Sheriff's Office has received numerous complaints from citizens over the past several months about the Hiawassee Police Department stopping vehicles approximately one to two miles outside of their jurisdiction along Highway 76 West. On Friday, June 30th, Sheriff Ken Henderson noticed a vehicle stopped by the Hiawassee Police Department near the car wash on Highway 76 West, and decided to investigate the situation, which is within his authority to do so.

Sheriff Henderson waited until Sergeant Tracy James issued a citation to the driver in the stopped vehicle and then asked the driver where Sergeant James had turned on his blue lights. The driver said that the blue lights were turned on just prior to the stop, approximately two miles outside the Hiawassee city limits. The Sheriff then attempted to talk with Sergeant James who began berating the Sheriff and threatened to arrest him. Sergeant James had no arrest powers to do so, as he was outside his jurisdiction. A heated argument between Sergeant James and Sheriff Henderson ensued and ended within about a minute.

The Sheriff regrets that the argument escalated, and that profanity was exchanged. Subsequently, Sergeant James' dash camera video of the incident was released to news outlets and to social media, presumably by the Hiawassee Police Department or the Hiawassee City Government.

If the traffic offense occurred inside the city of Hiawassee, Sergeant James likely would have been justified in making the traffic stop outside his jurisdiction if he were engaged in “hot pursuit” of the suspect. “Hot pursuit” allows for the immediate and continuous pursuit by police officers of a fleeing suspect into neighboring jurisdictions where they have no power to enforce the law. Upon entering a neighboring jurisdiction, the officer engaged in “hot pursuit” must notify said jurisdiction that they are engaged in “hot pursuit.” It appears that Sergeant James may have initiated an illegal traffic stop because he was out of his jurisdiction, and it is unclear whether or not he was engaged in “hot pursuit.”

The County Attorney continues to investigate the legality of traffic stops being made by the Hiawassee Police Department outside the City limits and inside the Sheriff's Office's jurisdiction, and Sheriff Henderson has met with the Mayor and Chief of Police several times to share his concerns about the issue.

However, Sergeant James was engaged in pursuit of a fleeing suspect recently. On Friday, May 27th, 2022, the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, Sergeant James was involved in a high-speed chase outside of his jurisdiction. According to an Incident and Arrest Report, written by and filed by Sergeant James, and obtained by the Towns County Sheriff's Office, Sergeant James made a traffic stop near Highway 288 and Highway 76 West after he observed the driver not wearing a seat belt and behaving oddly. Sergeant James made his observations of the driver while the driver was in the City of Hiawassee.

After initially stopping, the driver decided to flee, and Sergeant James engaged the driver in a high speed chase in the Towns County Sheriff's Office's jurisdiction. The Report describes a dangerous high-speed chase with speeds reaching in excess of 110 miles per hour in the very congested area on Highway 76 West between the Sandbar and Marina Station, with cars being forced onto the wrong side of the road and off the road to avoid the chase.

The chase continued through heavy holiday traffic, several miles through Towns County, at speeds described by Sergeant James in the Report, reaching 130 miles per hour. The chase ended when the suspect crashed and was arrested by Sergeant James miles outside his jurisdiction.

The Sheriff and his staff began receiving complaints from the public about the dangerous pursuit by law enforcement taking place, mistakenly thinking that Sheriff's Office vehicles were in pursuit. A supervisor with the Sheriff's Office ordered deputies not to engage in the pursuit because to do so, would be in violation of Sheriff's Office standard operating and procedures policy which prohibits the high-speed pursuit of motorists for minor traffic offenses, such as seat belt violations. The Sheriff's Office recognizes how dangerous high-speed pursuits are to motorists and pedestrians, and Sheriff Henderson's number one priority is keeping the citizens of Towns County safe.

On June 30th, 2022, a driver fleeing from deputies in Coweta County struck and killed a woman who was sleeping insider her home. According to Fox 5 Atlanta, a chase started when a deputy noticed a vehicle that failed to dim its headlights. When the deputy tried to pull the car over, the car sped off, reaching speeds of over 130 miles per hour. The driver lost control and drove straight into a home, killing the woman. This is a prime example of why the Towns County Sheriff's Office does not engage in high-speed chases. They are extremely dangerous. The high-speed chase that Sergeant James recently initiated was both reckless and unjustified, and it put many people’s safety in jeopardy. Fortunately, though, no one was injured or killed.

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