TAMPA, Fla. -- A federal appeals court has cleared the way for pat-down searches of fans to resume at Tampa Bay Buccaneers home games when the football season begins in August.
Tampa-area high school teacher Gordon Johnston had successfully challenged the frisking of fans entering Raymond James Stadium, arguing that it violated his constitutional protection against unreasonable searches. Three courts had agreed with him.
But a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision Tuesday, saying Johnston had forfeited his right to challenge the constitutionality of the pat-downs when he consented to them.
The court also noted that Johnston doesn't have a constitutional right to watch a football game, that he was aware of the search policy before entering the stadium and that the Bucs can revoke game tickets for any reason.
"Considering Johnston's ticket was only a revocable license to attend games, there is in the Court's opinion at least a question concerning whether Johnston had a constitutional right to pass voluntarily through the stadium gates without being subjected to a pat-down search, even if he had not consented to one," the court wrote.
At three games in 2005, Johnston accepted the pat-down searches but told security officials he did not consent.
NFL officials have contended that pat-down searches, which began in 2005, provide an essential layer of security in an age of constant terrorism threats.
Johnston, 61, said he is talking to his attorneys to determine his next move. He could ask the panel to reconsider its decision, request a review by all 12 judges of the 11th Circuit or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I don't want to give up on it," Johnston said Wednesday. "Being a government teacher and knowing the Constitution, I think it's the wrong decision."
Rick Zabak, an attorney for the Tampa Sports Authority, the government agency that runs the stadium, said he's trying to determine whether the court's decision allows the searches to automatically resume at the Buccaneers first preseason game Aug. 10 or if he has to ask a court to reinstate them.
Zabak said he thinks Tuesday's decision will decide the issue definitively.
"You never say never, and we don't know how far [Johnston] is going to press it, but it's a pretty strong opinion," he said.
The NFL lauded the ruling.
"Pat-downs are an important part of our comprehensive security procedures, including secure facility perimeters and bag searches," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. "These limited, consensual security screenings are designed to enhance the protection and safety of our fans."
Tampa is the only NFL city where the pat-downs had been successfully challenged in court, although lawsuits have also been filed in Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.
Johnston said he will get rid of his Buccaneers season tickets if pat-downs resume in Tampa.