AIKEN, S.C. – Silent tears stream down Lakeya Hicks’ face as she recalls Oct. 2, 2014, a day that should have been a happy memory as she and her husband drove the car they had recently and proudly purchased. Instead, her recollection is filled with brutality and embarrassment.
It was that day that she and her husband, Elijah Pontoon, were pulled over and forced to endure what they say was an illegal cavity search. Police never found any of the drugs they suspected the couple of holding, and they were never charged with a crime.
Pontoon and Hicks, who are black, say they endured humiliation at the hands of four white police officers on the side of a public road. Police have denied the allegations, and while there isn’t video of the search, a dash camera did capture audio of the encounter.
“I felt very humiliated,” Hicks, 31, said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press, the first time they’ve spoken publicly about what happened. “We don’t want this to happen to anybody else.”
The couple has filed a federal lawsuit over the encounter, which comes after several high-profile incidents sparked a nationwide debate about how white officers treat African-Americans.
The lawsuit details their account: They were pulled over because the car had a paper license tag, though the officer said later during their encounter that he knew Pontoon, 40, because he had previous arrests several years earlier. Dash cam video, which has been widely circulated online in recent weeks, shows the officer asking Hicks for the car keys and bill of sale, and both are asked for identification.
Their car is then searched with dogs trained to sniff out drugs, and the couple is put in police cars before being searched themselves.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in November, says Hicks’ breasts were exposed as she was detained on the side of the road and searched by a female officer. During a search of his anal cavity, Pontoon explains that a mass the officer felt was not hidden drugs but was actually a hemorrhoid. The search isn’t seen on the video, but the exchange can be heard.
The officer is heard telling Pontoon that because of “your past history,” he summoned a police dog to check the car. When Pontoon — who has prior drug arrests but none in recent years — objected to what he described as harassment, the lawsuit says the officer told him: “You gonna pay for this one boy.”
Sitting in the kitchen of their modest home, it’s apparent that it’s difficult for Hicks and Pontoon to talk about the ordeal. Pontoon often looks off in the distance as he describes trying to explain to his children how they should still trust police. Hicks — who is due to give birth to the couple’s third child this week — struggles to detail the comments she overhears as she does business around town.
“When they called my name, everybody turned and looked at me,” she said of a recent visit to her doctor.
“Every time we walk around, we see people looking, pointing, whispering,” Pontoon added.
Hicks and Pontoon live north of the city of Aiken, miles from its quaint streets and noted horse farms. Their mobile home is in a rural area off a dirt road, surrounded by other modest, prefabricated structures.
In its official response, Aiken Police have denied all allegations. In a brief statement issued earlier this month, the city’s Department of Public Safety maintains the traffic stop was legal and “part of an ongoing narcotics investigation” and that the officer didn’t tell Pontoon he’d pay for his actions. The department also said “at no time during the traffic stop, was a body cavity search conducted, nor were any private body parts exposed to the public as alleged.”
The day after they were stopped, Pontoon and Hicks filed an official complaint with police, though the couple’s lawyers say the city never responded to it. They say city leaders ignored the incident until national news outlets began to circulate the story of the traffic stop. Earlier this week, the Aiken City Council moved to create a citizen advisory panel to review complaints made against city officers.
No trial date has been set in the couple’s federal case, and mediation could happen later this year. As they wait for the legal case to make its way through the courts, Hicks says she and her husband are focusing on their growing family and how, one day, they hope things will be different.
“I just hope that, by the time that our baby is born and he gets old enough to understand what’s going on, that everybody will be on the same page, that the things that we have went through don’t happen to anybody else,” she says.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/