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High court rejects a Tampa lawsuit aimed at ending searches of fans at NFL games

TAMPA — A high school civics teacher's three-year fight to stop pat-down searches at Raymond James Stadium came to an end Wednesday.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the appeal of Gordon Johnston, 63, who claimed the patdowns violated his Fourth Amendment privacy protections.

Johnston, a season ticket holder for Tampa Bay Buccaneers football games, acknowledged that his cause is dead unless another challenge emerges.

"Needless to say, I'm gravely disappointed," said Johnston, a Valrico resident who teaches American government at Tampa Bay Tech high school. "I still feel like I have a right to go to a ball game without being touched or patted down."

The National Football League ordered fan patdowns at the start of the 2005 season in response to terrorism concerns. Fans were met by private security guards who tapped their bodies with the backs of their hands in search of weapons or other contraband.

Johnston, represented by lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union, is believed to be the first person to challenge the action in court.

He argued that patdowns are an unreasonable invasion of privacy that do little to make fans safer. If anything, the lines that resulted outside the stadium exposed game patrons to greater danger, he said.

A lower court agreed. But a panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision in June 2007, saying Johnston had consented to the searches by purchasing tickets.

Patdowns at Raymond James were on hold during the legal back and forth but resumed Oct. 12 after the appellate court lifted a stay. Until that point, Raymond James remained the last NFL stadium where the patdowns did not occur.

Another challenge by a season ticketholder of the San Francisco 49ers is before the California Supreme Court.

"Patdowns have been and will continue to be an important part of our comprehensive security procedures, including secure facility perimeters and bag searches," said Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL. "These limited security screenings are designed to enhance the protection and safety of our fans."

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case means things remain the same at Raymond James.

"We're now doing what all the other teams are doing and we have been for a good part of this season," said Rick Zabak, an attorney with GrayRobinson, a law firm who had represented the Tampa Sports Authority, the governmental body that runs the stadium.

Johnston said he is evaluating whether to continue buying season tickets in the wake of the ruling. He's torn because he objects to the searches but enjoys seeing the games.

In filing his suit, he said he was hoping to use it as a teaching moment for his students, showing them how to properly challenge the actions of government with which they disagree.

Along the way, he caught some grief from fans. What's the big deal? they asked.

"I think they don't understand the Constitution as I do," Johnston said. "Sometimes I look at these people and think, poor them. They don't understand the ramifications. If we allow that right to be taken away in the name of security, they may take away more rights."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which includes information from the New York Times. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

High court rejects a Tampa lawsuit aimed at ending searches of fans at NFL games 01/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 7:34am]

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