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Can concert promoters legally search you for drugs and booze?

Dear Cecil:

At a recent rock concert I was subjected to more than the typical cursory check for cans and bottles when I entered the theater. The promoter had security people keep ticket holders in line for over an hour as they conducted what can only be described as a search-and-seize mission at the door. Concertgoers were permitted to enter single file, doormen spent several minutes per person rooting through purses and pockets (they even checked one guy's hair looking for who knows what) and relieved people of pipes, papers, bags of grass, wineskins, and other assorted spirits.

Do promoters have the right to conduct such a shakedown? A friend of mine was parted from a small pouch of excellent Columbian which was found in his pants pocket--a rather frightening experience. Legally, do these private security people have the right to confiscate drugs? Is the concertgoer subject to a possession charge if he's caught holding? Am I within my rights to refuse to submit to search, or to demand a warrant? Can I be prevented from entering if I refused to be searched? As for somebody patting me down, it seems to me that they'd be open to an assault charge. Could you spell out the law on this issue?

Susan, Los Angeles

Cecil replies:

Dear Susan:

Sure, but you’re not going to like what you hear. The constitutional safeguards against search and seizure apply only to the government, not to private parties.

This is not to say that a concert promoter can search you with impunity. When you buy a concert ticket, you’re essentially entering into a contract: the party of the first part (the promoter) agrees to allow the party of the second part (you) to attend his concert so long as you agree to play by his rules, which may include submitting to a search. Basic contract law permits private parties to extract such conditions so long as they do not violate public policy–e.g., the promoter can’t force you to commit a crime.

You’re within your rights, of course, to refuse to be searched, but the promoter can then refuse to admit you. (As a general rule he’s also obliged to give you your money back, and in fact promoters are almost always willing to do so.)

Note that there must always an element of free choice involved in searches. If you’re allowed into a concert and halfway through two of the promoter’s goons take it into their pebble-sized minds to forcibly search you again, you could have them charged with assault.

On the other hand, if you commence trashing the joint, it’s perfectly all right for the goons to give their all in defending the boss’s property (again, within reason–lawyers have made millions arguing about what exactly constitutes "within reason.").

The question is somewhat complicated by the fact that the "private security people" employed by concert promoters are often off-duty coppers. An off-duty police officer has the right–nay, the duty– to make an arrest when he or she witnesses a crime. This means that your friend–the one with the Columbian–could have been charged with possession and carted off to the slammer.

Fortunately, most promoters adhere to a policy of either ignoring drugs or simply confiscating them. All this may sound unfair to you, but next time you’re at a show where some 13-year-old music lover decides it’s time for a fireworks display, maybe you’ll see the sense of it.

Cecil Adams

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