AUSTIN (AP) – Texas lawmakers gave their initial backing Monday to legislation that would criminalize intentional, inappropriate touching during airport security pat-downs, but it was so watered down it provoked angry outbursts from conservative activists, who decried it as toothless.
The new versions of the bill would still make it a misdemeanor punishable with up to a year in jail to touch a person’s sexual organs and other sensitive areas. But now they give security officials a defense to prosecution if they act with “reasonable suspicion” that the search is necessary.
That change prompted chants of “Traitor!” by a small group of protesters in the Capitol rotunda shortly after the House cast a preliminary vote in favor of the bill.
The protesters then gathered in the Senate gallery and several called out “Treason!” to senators below. The Senate passed its version several hours after the protesters left.
The Republican-controlled chambers have until Wednesday to resolve several differences between their bills before sending one to Gov. Rick Perry to consider signing it into law.
Supporters of the bill complained the changes make the penalties unenforceable. Texas law already bans public servants from subjecting someone to a search he or she “knows is unlawful.”
About two dozen people showed up to testify in support of the bill in the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, then opposed it when they learned the bill was going to be changed on the recommendation of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican.
“The simple act of opting out of the body scanners is going to be reasonable suspicion,” said Heather Fazio of Austin. “That is unacceptable.”
Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, defended the change, saying the bill still sends a strong message to Transportation Security Administration security screeners to keep their wandering hands off Texans.
Patrick noted that the TSA announced last week that it would try to reduce the number of pat-downs performed on children.
“The goal is to get the TSA to change their policy,” Patrick said. “TSA is going change their policy because Texas is taking the lead.”
TSA spokesman Greg Soule said Americans expect authorities to use “effective methods to keep the traveling public safe” and that the agency will review the bill if passed into law.
All of the testimony for the bill has concentrated on stories of people being searched and included no actual examples of TSA officers being reprimanded or disciplined for improper touching.
Although dismissed last week as a “publicity stunt” by Republican House Speaker Joe Straus, the issue has become a top priority for the libertarian wing of the Texas GOP.
Few Texas airports are equipped with full-body scanners, meaning there often is no other screening option for travelers picked out for what TSA calls an enhanced pat down. Opponents have simmered over procedures they consider a violation of their Constitutional right against unwarranted search and seizure.
Texas made it a full-blown fight with the TSA last month when the Texas House voted to criminalize intrusive pat-downs. That version appeared ready to pass the Senate until John E. Murphy, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, warned lawmakers that it would interfere with the TSA’s ability to ensure travelers’ safety.
Murphy’s letter to legislators said if the original bill passed, the federal government would probably go to court to block it and the TSA would likely be required to cancel flights if it cannot ensure passenger safety.
TSA officials say advance imaging technology and pat downs are the most effective way to detect threats such as explosives made of plastics, liquids or gels designed to not be detected by traditional metal detectors.
The issue prompted some small but loud demonstrations outside the House and Senate chambers last month and many of them showed up again for Monday’s vote. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican considering a run for president, added the pat-down bill to the agenda of the 30-day special session he called on May 31.
But the bill has lost significant momentum over the last week.
Straus appeared to strike a major blow against the original version of the bill when he warned it would hurt commercial aviation in Texas and would make the state a “laughingstock.”
Monday’s changes further eroded support.
“TSA is abusing people,” said Don Hart of Austin, who opposed the new version approved Monday. “TSA will be empowered to keep doing what they are doing.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)