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Could an NFL Owner Face Criminal Charges for Throwing a Drink?

By T. Evan Eosten Fisher, Esq. | Last updated on

Last week at Everbank Stadium in Jacksonville, while the hometown Jaguars were trouncing the visiting Carolina Panthers, an unhappy Panthers fan was filmed throwing a drink at fans of the home team. The incident is noteworthy because the drink-tosser was none other than David Tepper, the owner of the visiting Panthers. The viral moment left many calling for justice, noting that ordinary fans would be subject to removal from the stadium or even arrest for such an action.

Unruly fans at sporting events are not a new problem in professional sports. Not so long ago, the Philadelphia Eagles' stadium even included a jail to deal with unlawful attendees who needed a different sort of “time out." The Philadelphia arena even included a working courtroom to provide due process to those who faced criminal charges for their game-day antics. Fortunately for Tepper, Jacksonville's arena lacked such facilities, but that does not extinguish the possibility of criminal liability.

Throwing a Drink at Someone Can Be a Crime

Under the laws of most states, causing intentional and offensive physical contact with another person can be punished as a form of assault or battery. These offensive contact crimes do not require any showing that the victim was injured in any way, and they are typically categorized as the lowest level of criminal assaults. These charges encompass actions like spitting, shoving, and yes – throwing drinks.

In Florida, where the incident occurred, the criminal statutes provide for such an offense category. Florida's battery law punishes a person who “actually and intentionally touches another person" against their will. This definition would exclude an accidental drink-spilling or the consensual splashing that might occur when a triumphant team sprays champagne to celebrate clenching a championship.

Also, the charge of battery would require the victim to actually be struck by the beverage. Should an intentionally tossed beverage miss the mark, the errant toss could still be charged as an attempted battery, which could lead to up to 60 days of jail time and a fine of up to $500.

Details from the Tepper incident are not entirely clear. Although the video was shared widely on social media, local law enforcement and prosecutors would be understandably reluctant to get involved without the insistence of a cooperative victim who would be willing to submit a sworn statement and agree to testify should the case go to trial.

Could Justice Take Another Form?

Although criminal charges are unlikely to be filed against Tepper, the NFL did take notice of the incident. After issuing a statement that condemned the conduct, the league issued a $300,000 fine to the owner. Tepper also issued a statement in which he did not apologize for the incident but indicated that he was willing to “accept the League's discipline" for his behavior. The fine represents approximately 600 times the maximum fine he could have faced from a criminal court.

To add to Tepper's misery, the woeful Panthers finished their season with the worst record in the league and failed to score a single point against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season finale. Afterward, Tepper fired the team's general manager. There will be no cause for any champagne celebrations in the Panthers locker room, but it seems like a good stiff drink might just be appropriate.

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