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Judge to Bucs: No more fan patdowns
The team's security policy of patdown searches for fans at home games is unconstitutional, a federal judge rules.
By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published July 29, 2006
TAMPA - A federal judge has upheld a ban on security patdowns outside Raymond James Stadium before Tampa Bay Buccaneers games, ruling Friday the practice violates the constitutional rights of fans.
"A generalized fear of terrorism should not diminish the fundamental Fourth Amendment protection envisioned by our Founding Fathers," U.S. District Judge James Whittemore wrote in his 26-page order. "Our Constitution requires more."
The ruling is a victory for Valrico civics teacher Gordon Johnston, 60, a Bucs season ticket holder who filed suit against the Tampa Sports Authority in October 2005.
A state court and an appeals court sided with Johnston last year and agreed to block the patdowns. The case was then transferred to federal court.
"I felt like the Constitution was on my side, and the law was on my side," Johnston said. "It's great to know that in our society today, when something is wrong, you can still try to make it right."
It has been almost a year since Johnston began his legal battle. But he said he never lost confidence he would prevail.
"Doing a blanket search of every person just from the chest up made no sense or reason," Johnston said. "To me, it created a false sense of security."
Richard Zabak, the Tampa Sports Authority's lawyer, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the judge's ruling.
The authority will meet Monday to determine its next step, which could include an appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Zabak said.
"Certainly, there's food for thought in the opinion for things that can be done," he said.
Johnston's co-counsel, Rebecca Steele of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she thinks it's unlikely the authority would prevail in an appeal.
"The law is strongly on our side," Steele said. "Every court that has looked at this has agreed with us."
Whittemore's ruling means Bucs fans likely will not be frisked when entering Raymond James Stadium this season.
It will be the only NFL stadium where patdowns are not conducted, Zabak said.
Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the NFL, said it was too early to say whether the league would take other steps to beef up security at Raymond James.
"Our attorneys are reviewing the decision," Aiello said. "They will assess our options and address the next steps."
Whittemore based his ruling on arguments presented during a hearing in U.S. District Court in Tampa on July 13.
At the hearing, Zabak told Whittemore the patdowns were implemented at the request of the NFL at the beginning of the 2005 football season. They are intended to thwart potential suicide bombers, he said.
But Johnston's co-counsel, John Goldsmith, said the authority never proved there was a credible security risk at Raymond James.
"You can't use the threat of terrorism as a base to eviscerate the constitutional rights of parties," he said.
Whittemore agreed. However, he noted his ruling was only intended to address whether the patdowns were constitutional - not if they were well-intentioned.
"It is not about the wisdom of the patdown policy, whether the average fan supports or objects to the patdown searches, or whether a judge believes the patdowns are wise," Whittemore wrote.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, people have become increasingly tolerant of searches. But that doesn't grant the TSA permission to ignore constitutional protections of privacy, Whittemore said.
"Utilizing mass suspicionless patdowns simply goes too far," he wrote.
The ruling could inspire similar lawsuits at other NFL stadiums. Earlier this month, the Chicago Bears were sued by the city's park authority to halt patdowns for fear of violating fans' constitutional rights.
At the Bucs' training camp in Orlando, at least one fan applauded the judge's ruling.
"I'd love not to go through it," said Randall Moye Jr., 39, a season ticket holder from Minneola. "Growing up, we never had patdowns and nothing happened. The majority of the people there are going to see a game and enjoy themselves, not to start fights or anything like that."
As for Johnston, he was recovering from a stomach ailment Friday and wasn't feeling well enough to celebrate his victory.
But he is gearing up for football season. The Bucs' first preseason game is Aug. 11 against the New York Jets.
"I'll go to most of the games, definitely," Johnston said. "No patdowns? That's great."
Times staff writer Joanne Korth contributed to this report. Carrie Weimar can be reached at cweimar @sptimes.com or 813 226-3416.