Florida judge shockingly halts security searches at NFL games

Posted: Oct 31, 2005 12:05 AM

Less than a month after a 21-year-old blew himself up just outside a packed football stadium in Oklahoma, a circuit court judge in Florida has granted the American Civil Liberties Union a surprise victory by issuing a preliminary injunction preventing searches at Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ games.

Spurred to action by the July 7 London bombings, the NFL this August mandated that all teams begin “pat-down” searches of ticket holders starting on September 25.  Many teams had been doing so since 9/11, though the Bucs had not.  The timing of the policy’s implementation turned out to be, at the least, eerie.

Less than a week after the NFL began league-wide pat-downs, college student Joel Hinrichs III blew himself up roughly 100 yards outside the University of Oklahoma football stadium, which was overflowing with some 84,000 fans.  While it is not clear whether he intended to commit a terrorist attack, the mere fact that he had tried to purchase, only days earlier, ammonium nitrate—which was used by Timothy McVeigh in 1996—would seem to show that the NFL was acting with reasonable caution.

With that backdrop, high school civics teacher and Bucs’ season ticket holder Gordon Johnston—backed by the Florida ACLU—filed suit against the Bucs on October 13, arguing that “suspicionless” searches by stadium security would violate his constitutional rights.

Employing laughably flawed logic, Johnston, among other things, argued, “Why do I need to lose my rights to go to a game?  It’s humiliating.  If I did that to my students do you know what would happen to me?” 

The difference, of course, is that high school classrooms, as yet, are not seen as attractive targets for terrorists.  And each person in his class is almost certainly a known quantity, which obviously cannot be said about each of the tens of thousands who attend any given football game.

As paraphrased by the Associated Press, the high school civics teacher further argued, “Security would be more effective if staff spent more time watching ticket holders and less time touching them.”  Why is it, then, that even highly trained Israeli security and military personnel have not always been able to visually detect the presence of suicide vests underneath bombers’ clothes?

The ACLU’s strongest argument was that the NFL instituted its pat-down policy absent any specific threat.  Yet terrorist attacks rarely occur after authorities have learned of a specific threat.  The London bombings, notably, came less than a week after British officials had lowered the threat level.  9/11, as everyone now knows, caught intelligence officials flat-footed, having never imagined the possibility of hijacked planes being flown into buildings.

If anything, terror attacks are least likely to occur after authorities learn of a specific threat.  Increased, visible security efforts are known to have deterred more than one attack, including one targeting the Brooklyn Bridge.  In fact, though it is impossible to know for sure since it is not the sort of thing officials would admit, it appears that none of the post-9/11 terror attacks (outside Israel) had been predicted by specific threats received by law enforcement beforehand.

Ironically, not far from the courthouse where Judge Perry Little issued his ruling last week halting security searches is the ongoing terrorism trial of alleged Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) higher-up Sami al-Arian.  (In the “it’s a small world, after all” category, Judge Little dismissed a civil suit brought against al-Arian in 2002 by investigative journalist and former prosecutor John Loftus.)

PIJ, of course, is one of the world’s leaders in suicide bombings—precisely the kind of attack the NFL policy is aimed at thwarting.  And al-Arian is only one of the terror arrests that have been made since 9/11 in the sunshine state.  Before then, a number of the Sept. 11 hijackers spent time in Florida.

What, then, did Judge Little make of the threat posed by the substantial, ongoing presence of suspected terrorists within a few hours drive of the Tampa stadium?  Apparently, not much.  His ruling was a preliminary injunction, which can only be granted if the judge believes there’s a good chance that the plaintiff will win at trial.

Assuming Judge Little continues siding with the ACLU and strikes down searches as unconstitutional, it is a safe bet that the Tampa Sports Authority, which operates the stadium, will appeal. 

Even if the prohibition on pat-downs is somehow upheld, the TSA could follow the lead of the Cincinnati Bengals, which only implemented the new policy after the team agreed to pick up the tab for the increased security—which would arguably make the searches private, and not public, action.  Then again, few experts had predicted the ACLU’s suit would prevail.

In the meantime, it seems that fans attending the next Bucs’ home game this Sunday will be able to walk past security without any sort of pat-down search.  This might spare Johnston “humiliation,” but is it likely to make any of the 65,000-plus other fans in attendance any safer?