Texas House makes last effort for anti-groping bill

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by CHRIS TOMLINSON

Associated Press

Posted on June 29, 2011 at 12:57 AM

AUSTIN (AP) — The Texas House will get a last-chance vote on a bill that would criminalize inappropriate, invasive searches by federal employees, even though the chances of it passing are a long shot.

In order to pass it, lawmakers will have to suspend the Constitution and parliamentary rules on Wednesday, the last day of the special session. That would require 120 votes out of 150 members in the House. Democrats who oppose the bill hold 49 seats.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, convinced a Democratic committee chairman to suspend normal parliamentary rules to take up a Senate version of the bill Tuesday. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, said he supported the effort to protect civil liberties and curb overzealous security personnel at Texas airports. He convened the Criminal Justice Committee, which approved the bill on a 7-1 vote and sent it to the full House.

The bill would make it a crime for a federal security official to intentionally touch someone inappropriately without reasonable suspicion that they are carrying contraband. If signed into law, it would make only a slight change to existing law that forbids public officials from mistreating people. But supporters say the bill is a symbolic gesture to protest how the Transportation Security Administration conducts random, enhanced pat-downs at airports.

"For me, it's about Texas protecting its citizens," Rep. Jose Aliseda, R-Beeville, said.

Gallego told the committee that the text of the bill was problematic, and that law enforcement agencies had told him it was too far-reaching. He said he would likely vote against it when it reached the House floor.

In order for the bill to pass on Wednesday, the House must vote to suspend the constitutional rule that a bill must be presented to the House over three separate days. In order to do that, a motion to suspend that rule must receive a four-fifths vote. Democrats are unlikely to support the measure after the bill's author, Sen. Dan Patrick, and the president of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, portrayed the bill as sending a message to the Obama administration about personal liberties.

"The responsibility for the failure of this bill can found in the Senate," Gallego said, in explaining how making the partisan rhetoric will make it difficult for Democrats to support the measure.

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.

Federal officials have said they would seek an immediate injunction if the bill is signed into law, arguing it violates federal authority over aviation.

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