June 27, 2011

Texas House, Senate approve reworked bills over airport pat-downs

House Speaker Joe Straus says the revisions would allow law enforcement to “do its job.”

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AUSTIN -- The Texas House on Monday gave preliminary approval to legislation that prohibits invasive pat-downs by federal airport security agents after incorporating changes that led House Speaker Joe Straus to drop his resistance to the bill.

The Senate passed its own watered-down version of the bill Monday night. The measure now goes back to the House for another vote today.

The substantially reworked measure, however, ignited a new wave of hostility from another direction as scores of former supporters staged a noisy protest inside the Capitol to denounce the changes. Austin radio talk show host Alex Jones, who led the rally, said the changes "completely gutted" the bill.

The controversial measure, which has drawn national attention, also faced another adversary: time.

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate, acknowledged that it will be a challenge to get the measure to Gov. Rick Perry's desk before the Legislature's special session ends Wednesday.

Despite all the obstacles that have arisen, the bill showed unexpected signs of life just days after Straus denounced it as a "publicity stunt" and vowed that it would not come to the House floor in its original form.

The reworked House bill emerged from talks between Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, and senior members of Straus' leadership team.

Straus said that "after substantial revisions to the bill," he was satisfied that the legislation "lets Texans travel safely, protects the privacy of citizens and enables law enforcement to do its job."

The bill would expand the federal definition of "official oppression" to ban federal employees from improperly touching a person's private areas. Violations would constitute a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a maximum $4,000 fine.

The Transportation Security Administration opposes the measure and has threatened legal action if it becomes law.

The revised bill has changes urged by the Texas attorney general's office to help counter possible constitutional hurdles. One key change allows agents to argue, as an element of defense, that they believed that they were acting within the scope of the Constitution.

Another major revision changes the proposed standard for conducting searches from "probable cause" to "reasonable suspicion" of wrongdoing. The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas said a "probable cause" standard would unduly restrict law enforcement searches.

But, conversely, supporters of the original bill said permitting "reasonable suspicion" as a basis for airport screening allowed a more relaxed standard that would give TSA agents broad latitude to conduct pat-downs. The bill applies to searches involving people seeking access to public buildings or transportation.

At least 75 protesters led by Jones crowded outside the House and Senate and packed into the governor's reception room to assail the House bill.

Patrick and Simpson defended the changes as necessary to get the bill passed. They predicted that it would force the TSA to make policy changes to prevent abusive behavior.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294

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