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Patdown lawsuit in federal court

It's the third court asked to rule on the searches.

By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published July 14, 2006


TAMPA - A state judge and an appeals court sided with civics teacher Gordon Johnston when he objected to security patdowns at Raymond James Stadium.

Now Johnston must convince a federal judge, too.

On Thursday, less than a month before the Buccaneers' Aug. 11 preseason opener, attorneys for Johnston squared off with an attorney for the Tampa Sports Authority before U.S. District Court Judge James D. Wittemore.

At issue is whether patdowns should be allowed at the Buccaneers' home games. The National Football League mandated the frisking at the start of the 2005 season at each stadium where its 32 teams play, largely to guard against terrorists. Johnston, 60, a Bucs season ticket holder, said the patdowns violate state and constitutional protections against illegal searches.

Wittemore did not make a ruling after the two-hour hearing. He said he will issue a written decision.

While Wittemore cautioned those in the courtroom against trying to guess how he will rule, he sharply questioned the authority's attorney, Richard Zabak, about why he should reverse the decision of Hillsborough Circuit Judge Perry A. Little. In November, Little issued a court order halting the patdowns.

When Little's decision was upheld by Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeals, the authority asked that the case be transferred to federal court.

During Thursday's hearing, Wittemore also called the patdowns "unreasonable" and asked Zabak to show evidence of a real public safety threat to justify them.

"We should not begin diminishing our constitutional protections based on fear. Plain and simple," Wittemore said.

Zabak said the patdowns are intended to thwart potential suicide bombers. The targeting of NFL stadiums by terrorists is a frequent theme in movies and books, he added.

"Would we be safer without those movies?" Wittemore quipped.

The judge also offered several solutions the authority and the NFL could have used to avoid the legal dispute. For example, Wittemore said, the Bucs could have sent a letter to all season ticket holders warning them about the patdowns and offering a refund if they objected.

"I wish I had that piece of evidence with me today," Zabak said, agreeing.

But he urged the judge to consider the rights of the other Bucs fans.

"We submit you have to think about the other people," he said. "What about their ability to feel safe at an NFL game?"

Johnston, an ordained minister and former missionary to Brazil who teaches government and U.S. history at Tampa Bay Tech, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the patdowns in October.

His lawyer, John Goldsmith, noted during the hearing that patdowns aren't used at any other large venues, including baseball stadiums, hockey rinks or college football games.

Goldsmith told Wittemore there was something particularly invasive about allowing security guards to touch your torso.

Johnston listened silently during the hearing, occasionally nodding his head in agreement with his lawyer.

After prevailing in Hillsborough Court and the appeals court, it's frustrating to have to make the same arguments yet again, Johnston said after the hearing. But as a teacher, he finds the process interesting.

"It's a learning tool," he said. "There's an educational benefit to this for me and my students."

The court order against the patdowns is still in effect, which means the searches won't be conducted when the 2006 season begins unless Wittemore decides otherwise.

Johnston said he's not sure if he'll go to any games this season. But he's confident he'll prevail.

"I've said from the start I believe the Constitution is on my side," he said. "I've always thought I was right."

Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 14, 2006, 05:46:32]


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