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Questioning legality of pat downs

California Supreme Court to examine important case

Posted: Wednesday October 24, 2007 3:47PM; Updated: Wednesday October 24, 2007 3:49PM
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Everyone who attends a 49ers game, including these jubilant fans, is patted down before they enter the stadium.
Everyone who attends a 49ers game, including these jubilant fans, is patted down before they enter the stadium.
Rob Holt/Icon SMI

Do pat downs at NFL games violate the law?

The California Supreme Court will soon examine that question in Sheehan v. The San Francisco 49ers, a case which follows similar efforts to invalidate pat downs as fans enter stadiums in Tampa Bay, Chicago and Seattle.

In the post-9/11 era, sports fans have become accustomed to pat downs. Before entering an NFL stadium, every ticket holder is greeted by a private screener of the same gender. Without touching any exposed skin, the screener pats down the backs and sides of every person entering the stadium. If a screener feels something that raises suspicion, the ticket holder may be required to reveal the disputed area. Prohibited items may be confiscated and can lead to arrest.

NFL vice president of security Milton Ahlerich tells SI.com that pat downs facilitate the discovery of dangerous items, such as guns, knives, and improvised explosive devices, decrease the general threat of terrorism, and are minimally inconveniencing. Pat downs are among a bevy of security measures instituted by the NFL after 9/11. The league consulted with terrorism experts, who concluded that NFL games represent "soft targets" or those uniquely vulnerable.

The "softness" of NFL games seems clear. NFL games are high visibility events, followed closely by millions. They also embody considerable symbolic value, often celebrated by cookouts, tailgating and the like. In addition, by being closely-situated in seats or moving about in congested, densely-packed crowds, fans in stadiums are continuously exposed to unnoticed hazards. As Princeton University psychology professor Emily Pronin says, fans are also likely to be focused on the game and therefore less likely to detect suspicious activity.

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