Late this afternoon, Judge Perry A. Little of the 13th Judicial Circuit in Hillsborough County stopped the suspicionless pat-down searches of all persons entering Raymond James Stadium for National Football League games. The ruling comes in the first legal challenge to a controversial policy the NFL has sought to impose on stadiums across the country.
Judge Little issued the preliminary injunction to stop the searches while a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida goes forward. The ACLU brought the lawsuit on behalf of Tampa Bay Buccaneers season ticket holder Gordon Johnston, a high school civics teacher. Judge Little noted that the law forbids the government, including the Tampa Sports Authority, from performing physical searches without cause, unless exceptional circumstances exist, which the defendants had not proven.
“I feel vindicated,” said Johnston. “I teach the Constitution, and I felt that I had to stand up for what’s right. I know that our system is strong, and I believed that the court’s decision would be the right one.”
On September 13, the Tampa Sports Authority, which owns and operates the stadium, approved an NFL policy requiring security personnel to physically pat-down every person entering the stadium during football games. But when Johnston had renewed his season tickets and received his packet of season ticket information, he was never informed that he would be subject to a pat-down search when attending games.
Johnston contacted the Buccaneers to object, but was informed that the Buccaneers would not refund the cost of season tickets for him or other ticket holders who objected to the pat-down policy.
Johnston and the ACLU asked the court to declare the pat-down policy in violation of the United States Constitution and Florida law.
“There are far more effective ways to protect the security of football fans than sacrificing the constitutional freedom to be free from a pat-down search without probable cause or even any individualized suspicion,” said Rebecca Harrison Steele, the ACLU’s West Florida Regional Director and a lead attorney in the case. “The NFL’s suspicionless search policy will not make fans any safer, and in fact may expose those gathering at stadium entrances to greater danger.”
In issuing today’s injunction, Judge Little cited the 2004 case of Bourgeois v. Peters, decided by the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, addressing restrictions on protests outside the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.
In that case, the court wrote, “The Fourth Amendment embodies a value judgment by the Framers that prevents us from gradually trading ever-increasing amounts of freedom and privacy for additional security. It establishes searches based on evidence - rather than potentially effective, broad, prophylactic dragnets - as the constitutional norm … We cannot simply suspend or restrict civil liberties until the War on Terror is over, because the War on Terror is unlikely ever to be truly over. September 11, 2001, already a day of immeasurable tragedy, cannot be the day liberty perished in this country.”
“Fear of terrorism should not be used as an excuse to sacrifice the fundamental freedoms that define our nation or lead us to accept any measure in the name of security,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “Now is the time for Americans to ask critical questions about whether security measures will actually make us safer - or, as in this case, expose crowds to greater danger - and whether we are being asked to needlessly surrender constitutional freedoms.”
The ACLU said that long-established constitutional principles hold that individuals retain the right to move about on public streets and thoroughfares freely and without police intrusions and that, as a general matter, the government can’t search individuals on sidewalks and thoroughfares without individualized suspicion.
“This is a significant victory for the Constitution -- and for NFL fans,” said ACLU cooperating attorney John Goldsmith.
The case was filed in the Hillsborough County Circuit Court in Tampa. The Tampa Sports Authority and its Executive Director, Henry G. Saavedra, are named as defendants.
In addition to Steele, Johnston is being represented by ACLU Legal Director Randall Marshall and Tampa ACLU Cooperating Attorney John Goldsmith of the law firm of Trenam Kemker.