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Texas bill to criminalize "enhanced pat-downs" hits setback


Passengers wait in line to pass through the security check point at DFW Airport in Fort Worth,Texas November 15, 2007. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
Passengers wait in line to pass through the security check point at DFW Airport in Fort Worth,Texas November 15, 2007. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

AUSTIN, Tex (Reuters) - A controversial proposal to criminalize "enhanced pat-downs" at Texas airports stalled in the state senate late on Tuesday night, following a lobbying effort against it by the federal government.

State Senator Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican, had said he had enough support to win approval of the measure, which would have called for Transportation Security Administration agents to be charged with misdemeanor sexual harassment for what the bill calls 'intrusive touching,' a crime that carries a penalty of up to a year in jail.

The bill described 'intrusive touching' as touching a passenger's sexual organs, or 'touching in a manner that would be offensive to a reasonable person.'

But after John Murphy, United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas, circulated a letter threatening to cancel flights out of Texas if the law passed, Patrick saw support for the measure rapidly vanish.

When Patrick found he no longer had the two thirds majority of the senate required under the rules to debate a bill on the floor, he pulled it from consideration. With the legislature set to adjourn on Monday, the proposal looks dead for the current session.

Murphy had written that: "The proposed legislation would criminalize searches that are required under federal regulations in order to ensure the safety of the American public."

"Under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, Texas has no authority to regulate federal agents and employees in the performance of their federal duties or to pass a statute that conflicts with federal law."

Murphy said if the measure became law, the TSA would "likely be required to cancel any flight or series of flights for which it could not ensure the safety of passengers and crew."

State Representative David Simpson, a Longview Republican who introduced the bill in the Texas house, where it was approved two weeks ago, criticized Murphy's 'brazen show of disregard for the dignity and the constitutional rights of American citizens.'

"The Federal Government showed its willingness to bully the State of Texas if attempts to protect passengers from being forced to give up constitutional rights are not dropped," Simpson said.

"Either Texas backs off and continues to let government employees fondle innocent women, children, and men as a condition of travel, or the TSA will cancel Texas flights."

Simpson said his bill specifically exempts TSA agents from prosecution if federal law directs them to perform "invasive, indecent groping searches."

(Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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