When Devon Pfeifer visited the Bow-Tie Cinemas in Norwalk last weekend with two friends to see "Alice in Wonderland," she was subjected to a staff search of her handbag.

The Fairfield resident's friends, Westporters Barbara Reynolds and Harriette Heller, had their handbags searched, too. And, according to Pfeifer, most of the women at the movie complex that night had their handbags searches, too.

"They weren't searching the guys with the big, bulky coats, just the women," she said. "And they were just searching the people going to the highest-attended movies, not the ones that had been playing for three weeks." She said the people "who were doing it were doing what they were told to do."

Pfeifer, the chairwoman of Fairfield's Democratic Town Committee, said bag searches "made a mockery" of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The searches were being made not for weapons or other contraband, but to prevent patrons from sneaking food into the theaters.

The CEO of Bow-Tie Cinemas, Joseph Masher, last week apologized for the episode and admitted that "perhaps the staff was a bit overzealous that evening." He said he would like "to offer my sincerest apology to the three ladies and to anyone else who felt violated. I can assure you it will not happen again."

But Masher said that the problem of people smuggling food into theaters is one that plagues movie complexes from coast to coast.

"For instance, we have had incidents in the past where guests have accidentally spilled piping hot coffee onto another guest, guests who have left food containers and pizza boxes on the floor that have caused slipping hazards, and ice cream containers left on floors that others have slipped and fallen over," Masher said. "Additionally, the air in the theater is often permeated with offensive odors from outside foods, and we strive to ensure our guests have a positive experience."

As a result, Masher said, it's "the policy of Bow-Tie Cinemas to not allow outside food or drink to be brought into the theater."

Jeff Meyer, a professor at the Quinnipiac University School of Law, said Friday the Fourth Amendment applies only to searches performed by government personnel.

"Shopping malls and movie theaters are free from Fourth Amendment constrains," he said.

"So then the question would be whether she would have claim under invasion of privacy laws, for example, whether the search was not adequately announced," Meyer said. "And to the extent that they're drawing gender classifications, well, that could also be trouble."

A check of the Bow-Tie Cinema in Trumbull, which has 16 movie screens, last week revealed that there are no signs announcing any policy that prohibits patrons from bringing in food from the outside. And this reporter attending a matinee screening of "Alice in Wonderland" was able to bring in his own 8.75-ounce bag of Honey Nut Chex Mix without being questioned by theater staff.

Pfeifer said that there also are no signs about the outside food ban at the Norwalk Bow-Tie Cinema.

Pfeifer, who wrote about the episode in a letter to the editor that was published in the Westport News, said that she didn't intend to pursue the matter further.

Leo Redgate, who operates the nonprofit Community Theater in Fairfield, said that his theater does not check moviegoers' bags.

"We do realize that we are in a tough economy that the price of concession food is exorbitant," he said. "But that's where these theaters make all of their money. We only charge $2 for a large popcorn and a large Coke. They charge $6.75. That's part of our recipe of success. We don't have a problem of people bringing food into our theater because we have made a conscious effort to keep our concession prices low."

Redgate said that profit margins for concessions at large movie complexes are "crazy," especially the soda. The cost to the theater, he said, for the cup, the ice, the lid, straw, carbonated water and soda syrup is about 10 cents, he said.

The Community Theater, he explained, is an "intermediate run" theater, which means it plays films a few weeks after they've made their first runs at big theater complexes across the nation. Because of this, it pays a lot less to the movie studios -- about 30 percent of the gross receipts -- as opposed to 80 percent.

Tracy King, a spokeswoman for National Amusements, one of the largest theater chains in the U.S., with 1,047 screens, said that it "does not allow outside food or beverage in our locations, and we do not search women's bags for outside food. We hope that our patrons respect our policy."

Bow-Tie has 124 screens in Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Colorado and Virginia.

As for Pfeifer, she said that she and her two friends were not the only people taken aback by the bag searches. "The people sitting next to us were very upset, too."